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Official Journal of Northwestern Center for Public Safety

The Key

Holidays in Blue: Recognizing Emotional Distress in Fellow Officers

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As joyful as the holiday season may be for many, it can be a time of devastating depression for others. This is as true for law enforcement professionals as civilians.

NUCPS instructor Rick Peterson wrote in the Sept/Oct 2018 issue of The Key that officers are not immune from depression and PTSD yet hesitate to seek help due to stigma and for fear of losing their jobs. Unfortunately, this reluctance to obtain help may have contributed to the loss of an estimated 140 officers who took their own lives in 2017 — a statistic that surpassed the year’s 128 line-of-duty deaths. (Gomori)

Dr. Laurence Miller wrote in PoliceOne that many officers develop a self-confidence that relies on the respect they garner from their communities, family and friends, and their colleagues. “An officer’s brittle shell of self-esteem may shatter if barraged by professional or family stresses, especially in combination.” Dr. Miller compares the self-perceived loss of respect that comes from seeking help for depression or the “inability to suck it up or snap out of it” to the loss of a limb, which, he writes, “alienat[es] an officer from potential sources of support which in turn only confirms his sense of isolation and abandonment. Add to this volatile mixture the ready access to a lethal firearm, stir in liberal amounts of alcohol, and this creates the perfect recipe for a suicidal explosion.”

Warning Signs

With experience and training on crisis calls, many law enforcement professionals recognize the signs of severe depression or suicidal ideation: (Gomori, Miller)

  • acting withdrawn or agitated, angry or hostile;
  • a change in behavior or not enjoying the same things they used to enjoy;
  • verbal self threats or verbalizing thoughts of suicide;
  • expressing feelings of being overwhelmed by life;
  • drinking more alcohol than normal;
  • problems sleeping;
  • not wanting to go home;
  • new or increased family issues; and,
  • verbalizing thoughts of suicide;and,
  • making final plans, paying off debt, or giving away possessions.
Law enforcement also has its own unique set of warning signs, including: (Miller)
  • a nothing-to-lose attitude (“what are they gonna do — fire me?”);
  • weapon surrender or weapon overkill: Dr. Miller notes that either an officer might fear his own impulses and ask to lock his gun away while performing paperwork or he may begin carrying more than one backup weapon; and,
  • not being as sharp as usual while on duty.
Dr. Miller emphasizes that police agencies should have a non-disciplinary, non-stigmatized process for guiding distressed officers to non-disciplinary, confidential psychological help.  If a colleague is in crisis, he suggests helping him or her in a manner similar to  a mental health crisis call. Do not leave the officer alone until he or she has obtained medical care. (Miller) §
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