You start with a darkness to move through but sometimes the darkness moves through you.Dean Young
Part 1: Numb No More
Scott sat still on his lazy chair.
He was alone.
His 9mm Berretta was on the coffee table next to him.
You know, just in case.
He couldn’t taste the vodka in his cup anymore. On this particular night, the usual double pours of vodka didn’t seem to do the job. His face was numb. So were his hands and legs. Despite his vision being a fog, his focus was pinpoint. Despite his skin being numb, what remained was a ball of sharp anxiety in the center of his chest.
The usual double pours of vodka didn’t seem to do the job anymore.
Like magma from the earth’s core, Scott’s inside bubbled and churned with an emotion he did not understand. Over the years, the energy from this personal ball of magma would try to exit his body. Just as earth’s volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are dictated by the molten lava in it’s center, Scott also felt those eruptions and quakes in the years leading up to this faithful day on his lazy chair.
The difference with Scott was that he never allowed those releases to reach the surface. So as the pressure grew, so did the volume of vodka he needed to quell the bubbling ball of angry magma inside of him. He drank so much and so frequently that the day finally came when no amount of vodka would do the trick.
Part 2: A Swell Kind of Guy
Scott was not quite 40 years old yet. He became a police officer at the age of 25. That’s when he found out his wife at the time was pregnant with his first son. That is when he decided to apply to the job. Partially it was for the benefits, but it’s also something he always wanted to do. He wanted to help people.
Scott always put others before himself.
He went out of his way when strangers accidentally dropped their belongings on the floor. If the person ahead of him in the supermarket was short a few dollars, he’s the type of person who would offer up the remaining amount with a smile. He always gave what he had in his pockets to homeless beggars. And when he didn’t have anything to give, he felt bad and thought about them for a better part of the day. This one time he ran onto a busy intersection with his hands up to slow oncoming traffic so that a stray dog wouldn’t get hit by a car.
Scott. He was a swell guy.
Part 3: The Unseen Cloud
Once upon a time, Scott became a police officer. He embraced the profession wholeheartedly. He was proud of what he did. His hallway walls were lined with photos of his various police outings and achievements. His favorite picture was the one of his son at 1-month old dressed in a baby police uniform, just like his.
As the years went by, those pictures on the wall slowly collected dust. Scott stopped updating them. He stopped looking at them. The smiles on the photos began to seem like a happiness that once was. An old feeling of joy that existed in a distant past.
Scott was always there for his son. As he was for his wife. But a slow dark cloud crept into his life. Over the years he began to lack interest to most things he used to enjoy. Little by little his reality morphed into one of constant uneasy nervousness. Scott never realized there was a cloud upon him.
The few times his wife tried to find a common ground with him, he chalked it up to, “You don’t see what I see”, “You wouldn’t understand” and “I’m protecting you by not telling you the things I see at work.” Those talks would always end up with Scott becoming furious. Doors would slam. Nothing was accomplished.
As the years went by, Scott and his son’s mother grew apart. She eventually filed for divorce. Scott never dealt with how the divorce made him feel. Nor did he deal with the work stress that began to change his personality. Instead of the divorce making him realize that he needed help, it sunk him deeper into a depression. It was a depression he had no idea he was in.
Scott’s walls were up high. They were up all around him. With each year that past, the walls went higher. With each intense radio call at work and with each bottle he drank at home alone, the walls grew in thickness. As did the cloud.
Until one day when…
When he sat still on his lazy chair.
With his 9mm Beretta on the coffee table next to him.
Just in case.
Part 4: Eruption
Scott sat on his lazy chair.
Everything began erupting.
All at once.
The pain came from deep in the marrow of his bones. The more he felt, the more embarrassed he became. The more embarrassed he became, the angrier he got. Just before his tears spouted, he let out a ferocious roar. But it did little to make the feeling go away.
Scott didn’t want to feel. He didn’t know how to feel. The instruction manual for that was lost long ago when he joined the police department. It was lost back before the walls were built. No one ever told Scott about this part of the job.
The roar was silent to the outside world. His walls were strong and soundproof. No one noticed. He was alone. Scott and his cloud. His soul was void of everything but sorrow. He tilted his head and looked up in order to prevent the tears in his eyes from spilling. Scott did not dare spill a drop. His jaw dropped and his lips pulled back. A string of saliva connected his lips.
If only he would have looked to the left.
Scott would have seen a dusty picture was in his line of sight. It was the one with his 1-month old son in that baby police uniform. The baby looked so peaceful. It’s eyes were closed in a slumber. Perfect for a photoshoot. The chubby folds of his arms made for a comfortable pillow to his infant face. A baby sized police hat rested on it’s tender head.
On the reflection of the picture’s glass was Scott. A silent movie reel played out on that reflection. He threw the vodka bottle across the room. But not a sound was made outside of those walls. Nobody was listening.
Scott let his head flop downward. A single teardrop spilt from his right eye and rolled down his cheek. Scott’s eyes then followed that teardrop as it descended onto the carpet by his foot.
In Scott’s mind, that lost tear was the end. It was the first sign of weakness. At that moment he knew. He knew without thinking.
Scott looked into the barrel of his Beretta as he pointed it towards himself. He placed the little hole of the gun onto his skin, in between his eyes. The movie reel on the glass blurred, the image of his son became clear.
If only he would have looked to the left.
At that dusty picture.
If only for a moment.
Part 5: Tears of Lava
Within that silent room, a bright flash lit the walls for a split second.
Scott’s Beretta fell onto his lap then bounced onto the ground, next to his solemn tear drop.
The volcano finally erupted.
The lava flow drowned his solitary room.
Scott sat still on his lazy chair.
He was alone.
There was no more cloud.
His 9mm Beretta was now on the floor next to him.
It lay next to the last tear drop Scott would ever live to spill.
Scott is a fictional character. So are the events that unfolded in the story you just read. Unfortunately, these occurrences are much too frequent in the profession of law enforcement. According to a comprehensive study by Michael G. Aamodt and Nicole A. Stalnaker from the Radford University Department of Psychology, which was posted on Police One, the risk of suicide in the law enforcement’s community is “…52% greater than that of the general population.” The study further concludes that the average profile of those who have committed suicide are as follows:
- 36.9 years old
- Married males
- 12.2 years of law enforcement experience
- 86.3% of suicides were committed off-duty
- 54.8% of suicides were committed at home
- 90.7% of suicides were committed with a gun
Scott’s character was developed using these statistics. After tons of research on law enforcement suicide rates, what I expected to find was largely and sadly very true. Here are some headlines and figures:
- ABC 7 News reported “Record Number of US Police Officers Died by Suicide in 2019.” They came to the this conclusion from information gathered on the website Blue H.E.L.P., which is a nonprofit setup to reduce mental health stigma in law enforcement through education.
- Fox News headlined, “Police Officer Suicide Rate More Than Doubles Line-of-Duty Deaths in 2019”, also citing Blue H.E.L.P. and the Caruth Police Institute, a company devoted to research, education and leadership development services in law enforcement.
- According to The Addiction Center, “Police officers are at a higher risk of suicide than any other profession.” Despite that being the case, “Of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the U.S., approximately only 5% currently have suicide prevention training programs”
I’ve spared you the grim numbers here. Not because they are boring. Not in the least bit. They are extremely important. You can read the hard numbers on some of the links I’ve provided above. For my purposes here, I want to focus on understanding why these numbers are so high.
I hope to begin a conversation about the deeper level and ask the question: Why do we as a culture and as a species commit suicide?
Are there personality flaws in they type of individuals who lean toward a career in law enforcement? Can the inner makeup of a police officer, filled with good intentions and sincere empathy, be an added reason for their proneness to suicide?
If so, can we afford to have a police force whose members do not possess these human traits? What characteristics do I mean?
- A sense of duty and fairness.
- A satisfaction from from helping people.
- Putting others before themselves.
- A passion for justice.
- A caring heart.
Is a higher potential for suicide a necessary evil that is intertwined with human kindness? Especially when surrounded by daily trauma and physical risk? Allow me to dive into a muddier, darker side of the human psyche in order to hopefully enlighten a better future for police and their families.
The Altruism-Suicide Connection
Altruism noun /altrōō izem/ “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” (as defined by Google)
We all have a level of altruism inside of us. It comes in a more familiar and simple form when we apply it to the members of our family. Taking a day off from work to care for a sick spouse. Missing the 4th quarter of the football game to go help your mother whose car broke down on the freeway. Letting your younger brother have the last scoop of homemade mashed potatoes, despite you still being hungry.
On a slightly bigger and impersonal scale, there are no shortages of people volunteering at local missions to feed the poor. People donate blood to local hospitals. People partake in beach clean ups on Earth Day. People even give monetary donations to charities they believe in.
Then you have professions. Police officers, doctors, and firefighters are some of the jobs often associated with directly helping other people. Sure it’s a job that offers benefits and a paycheck. However, a common motivation to enter in such professions is the desire to help others.
Whether we are helping our family members, helping strangers, or taking on a profession that helps a whole community, it is quite obvious that we as a species possess this altruistic feature within us.
It is important to understand there is a reward that comes from this kind of behavior. There is a feeling of satisfaction. We become proud of ourselves and gain self happiness that makes us feel good and want to do it again. It makes us feel as if we are an important part of something bigger than ourselves.
It’s quite the evolutionary adaptation for a social species like ours; Keep the whole intact by way of personal sacrifice.
But is there a form of pure altruism? I wonder if there are any behaviors which are completely selfless and only serve for the greater good of others. Meaning, void of the aforementioned feelings of satisfaction. Would we as individuals commit such beautiful deeds without the self indulgent feelings that follow?
If we take away the feel-good dopamine dumps of self worth, we arrive at altruism in it’s purest form. Does that even exist? Is that type of altruism helpful for a species?
To further understand the concept, we need to understand the term: biological altruism. As explained in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “an organism reduces the number of offspring it is likely to produce itself, but boosts the number that other organisms are likely to produce…” From a Darwinian standpoint, these behaviors give individuals a lesser chance when it comes to passing their personal genes, but helps in the survival of the group as a whole.
Let us look at a couple of examples from nature itself:
- Vervet monkeys: “give alarm calls to warn fellow monkeys of the presence of predators, even though in doing so they attract attention to themselves, increasing their personal chance of being attacked.”
- Ant & bee colonies: “sterile workers devote their whole lives to caring for the queen, constructing and protecting the nest, foraging for food, and tending the larvae. Such behavior is maximally altruistic: sterile workers obviously do not leave any offspring of their own—so have personal fitness of zero—but their actions greatly assist the reproductive efforts of the queen.”
Some forms of animal altruistic behavior are actually extremely selfish in its nature. Some examples of these are given in an article published in The Guardian:
- “A group of ravens had gathered to feed on a dead moose. But rather than choosing to keep the bounty for themselves, they were making a strange call, one which seemed to be deliberately attracting more ravens to the feast…By inviting other ravens to join them, their intrusion was more likely to go unchallenged.”
- “Vampire bats need to feed at least once every 36 hours otherwise they die but it’s common for female bats to share their spoils with roost mates who are low in nutrition and in need. Like much of animal altruism, this is actually a long-term insurance policy, a favor which is expected to be reciprocated when the time comes.”
The writer of this article, David Cox, is a freelance health journalist and former neuroscientist. He suggests that examples like the ravens and vampire bats are signs of the altruistic evolutionary transformation we see in humans. The behaviors become even more nuanced when the species have a higher level of complexity and intellect. Cox also surmises what “…makes humans unique is our willingness to go out of our way to help complete strangers, often putting ourselves in harm’s way in the process”.
In a more extreme but eye opening example. As summarized in Science Daily, a study by Dr Pierre Durand from the Department of Molecular Medicine and Haematology and the Sydney Brenner Institute for Molecular Bioscience (SBIMB) at Wits University and colleagues from the University of Arizona, “the results of their first study on suicide in single-celled algae in 2011, they showed that when an organism commits suicide by digesting up its own body, it releases nutrients into the environment that can be used by other organisms.”
While humans are a ways away from single celled algae, the common ground of what binds us is Mother Nature herself. We’d be fools to ignore the realities of our existence and the ways death touches us. Moreover, we’d be fools with no progression if we did not accept suicide as part of what makes us human.
Acceptance and Desire for Change
The field of psychology has grappled with the “why’s” of suicide among the human species since the beginning of modern science. With numerous studies among people and across the animal kingdom, it is clear that suicide is a part of life. From the microbe level, into our genes, through cultural memes which play out in tribalistic behaviors and into todays developed world, suicide is quite possibly here to stay.
Under most normal circumstances, I hope we can all agree that forced therapy does not help a person. It can be a tremendous waste of time and effort. For therapy to work, an individual must be in a place where they realize they need it, and they have to want to change.
Similarly, in order to begin any progressive conversations about suicide, the culture has to be in a place where they realize it is a problem. If we want to lessen the frequency of suicide and save lives, we have to want to change.
Conversation with a Clinical Therapist-Cop
I had a conversation with a personal friend who is both a police officer and a clinical therapist. She made a great point during a text conversation regarding this blog subject about suicide amongst the police culture.
She said, “The PTSD levels in an officer runs so high and is so unspoken and understudied, you begin to think where the willingness to die comes from if it’s not already there. If running into a building with a possible armed suspects isn’t the willingness to die, then what is? If we are driven by the dopamine in our brain along with adrenaline when responding to all of these code-3 calls, how can we expect to turn it off? Does it ever turn off? Or is it the same synapses that fire when you put your gun in your mouth, squeeze the slack until you hit the wall of resistance and fire?”
She continued, “We commemorate those who lost their life in a shooting, in a car accident, in things that we see as heroic. But then you have the officer that eats his gun in a fit of overwhelming sadness and his memory is quickly forgotten by his department”.
She made great point.
When the culmination of hundreds, even thousands of micro stress incidents officers experience throughout their careers add up to a tragic suicide, why isn’t that person treated with the same heroic gesture as a cop dying in one single deadly gunfight?
Consider the following:
We celebrate an officer’s life who dies in ways we consider “heroic”. But many of the actions officers take on a daily basis would be considered equally heroic as those that end in line-of-duty deaths. The difference is, they did not die. These heroic actions would by definition be highly stressful occurrences. If a person without a badge took the same daily actions to help strangers while risking their own life, they would be celebrated as champions of humanity.
No need for atta-boys or atta-girls here. But it’s important to take notice that these daily actions cause major emotional trauma to an individual’s psyche. Before they can deal with the skeletons of one traumatic event, the next one is upon them.
Then the next…
Then the next…
Then the next…
Pretty soon you have coppers with 12+ years on the job who have not dealt with what these actions have done to their mental health. As in the title of Bessel van der Kolk’s book suggests about trauma, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. In her work, she described how the suppressed emotions will eventually surface in a persons life one way or another.
In this flawed perception of heroism, a recipe for suicide has brewed. When this culmination of many thousands of micro stress incidents builds to the point where an officer takes his or her own life, we see a dark part of police work that we still refuse to accept and speak openly about.
In my eyes, police officer suicides are altruistically heroic behaviors. A behavior that is gigantically tragic.
The police-personality has altruism in its very coding. Understanding this altruism-suicide congruency can help in our quest to answer the “why’s”.
Most people applying for a job in law enforcement say “I want to help people”. Being one of those people, and being surrounded by like minded men and woman, I can say that these sentiments are true. I continue to see it on a daily basis with how my peers deal with the public. They do care. They continue to care. They continue to risk physical harm to themselves for people they have never met.
This altruism comes at a high price for each individual person in law enforcement. Those that are pushed to the edge of suicide, they don’t ask for help for many reasons:
- They don’t know how.
- The resources are not there.
- They don’t realize they have a problem
- Their “cop-personality” does not allow them to seek the help.
Let take a look at #4. Many times they do begin to see their own demise, but because of who they are, that is to say, a person with a self identity that is defined by their acts of helping others, they think that asking for help is a sign of weakness. They have perfected the craft of helping other people by way of personal risk to themselves. That requires the suppression of personal fear and personal weakness. It becomes habit to do so. It becomes their identity.
These type of altruistic personalities commonly join the police force. Over time this police-personality petrifies. Implicitly and over time they put people before themselves even at the potentially catastrophic price of self sacrifice. It is who they are. It is what they know. It is all they know. It is woven in the core of personality traits commonly drawn to the profession of law enforcement.
In the current 2020 climate, we cannot expect society to support a movement such as suicide awareness. Our own politicians have turned their back against the modern day American Cop. Regardless of the politics, we as a police culture have the power to begin saving lives of future generation of police. It starts with the leadership within the ranks of each agency.
Once we realize the connection between the police-personality and altruism, we can then mitigate the long term affects of police work by several ways:
- Integrated training: Integrate police training with education of its affects on the human psyche. The integration needs to begin from day-1 at the academy and last all the way to post retirement.
- Open dialogue: Begin open dialogue with people who were suicidal and came back to normal lives as cops. Hence, normalizing suicide and rewarding the bravery of those who have survived it.
- Education: Actively educate the public. If we can make every layman person experts on how stress affects those in law enforcement, perhaps that can interest political leaders who possess sympathy and support for law enforcement needs.
For much too long, the suicidal aftermath that stems from long term PTSD in police officers has been kept extremely hush-hush. This kind of devastating news is normally communicated by a safely worded email. It is dealt with it in a “company H/R” approach, devoid of any human emotion. This impersonal approach festers the continued taboo of suicide stigma.
We need to readjust our perspectives if we want to bring change to the normality of this phenomenon in law enforcement. It is tough to detach the emotion that comes with this sensitive topic. There is an obvious burden beyond the badge that we cannot ignore or sweep under the rug any longer.
This is my personal view and the above are my concepts for change.
But what do I know?
I’m just patrol.