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SHIFT Wellness Program Teaches Skills and Information that Can Assist with Suicide Prevention for Law Enforcement
According to the National Study of Police Suicides1 and the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed in Action Study2 (LEOKA) almost as many law enforcement officers died from suicide in 2016, 108 officers, as those who died from felonious assaults and accidents in the line of duty, combined, 118 officers. While this is an improvement from 2012, when more officers died from suicide than from line of duty assaults and accidents combined, it is still far too many officers to lose to suicide, which is preventable. The International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Department of Justice have identified the need to change culture in law enforcement agencies to adequately address the problem.
“Reducing suicide by law enforcement is dependent upon changing law enforcement’s perceptions of mental wellness, said United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz. As leaders, we must take every opportunity to encourage proactive and preventative measures so they can continue with long and successful careers.”3
“Officer safety is the top concern for police executives. Every chief wants their officers to return home each day as healthy and safe as when they came on duty. Police culture acknowledges the importance of physical safety and wellness… Unfortunately, mental health and well-being, while equally critical, fail to receive the same level of attention and resources within the officer safety continuum.”4
Across law enforcement, job stress and danger, repeated exposure to trauma and horrific events, mental health issues including PTSD, anxiety and depression, and substance abuse are identified as contributing factors to suicidal thinking and behavior. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention indicates that suicide for anyone most often occurs when current stressors overwhelm existing coping abilities, in many cases when some form of underlying mental health issue is present. They also identify changes in the way people talk about their problems, in their behavior and in their mood as risk indicators.5
The IACP has identified four essential components of law enforcement suicide prevention programs:6
• Culture Change
o Involvement of top leadership;
o Parity of mental health services and support with physical health and wellness;
o Access to quality mental health services trained to deal with law enforcement; and
o Adequate confidentiality policies.
• Early Warning and Prevention
o Understand risk factors and utilize them to assess officer need for support;
o Identify and evaluate mental health providers that support officers at risk;
o Provide peer support;
o Knowledgeable and confidential EAP and Mental Health self-referral availablity;
o Access to technological support through skype or other programs; and
o Information and training for family members.
• Training throughout the officer’s career on risk factors, critical incidents, mental wellness and resilience in which agency leadership is present and engaged at all times.
o Roll Call;
o Critical Incident and Resilience;
o Supervisory and Management;
o Retirement; and
• Event Response Protocols in the worst case, if a suicide happens
o Agency public protocols;
o For fellow officers; and
o For families.
Because of the growing awareness of the problem of suicide in the general population, and the commitment of programs like the IACP, DOJ and Badge of Courage to address this tragic problem within law enforcement, we are beginning to see progress. In four years, law enforcement suicides have dropped by nearly one third.7 As the problem has grown exponentially, so too, can the solution grow exponentially. Each agency that changes programs and culture makes a difference, each officer trained to recognize risk factors and each mental health provider trained to respond adequately to law enforcement broadens the protections available to law enforcement officers across the country.
The SHIFT Wellness Program has been teaching about the impact of law enforcement work with the sexual exploitation of children including secondary or vicarious trauma, behavioral changes, mental health impacts and substance abuse problems, as well as prevention and intervention techniques, mental health wellness skills and assisting agencies to incorporate wellness programs for their employees since 2009. Interestingly, impacts of trauma exposure and risk factors for suicide share many similarities. And while trauma, either extreme or cumulative, is not the only reason for law enforcement suicide, it is often a contributing factor. A wise law enforcement SHIFT Wellness training participant clearly saw the connection between learning wellness and resilience skills and officer safety. As instructors and participants were discussing the impact of trauma on brain function and the ability of wellness skills to address or correct that impact, he said, “Oh! It’s like a brain vest.”8 He understood that protecting officer mental health and wellness is every bit as important as protecting them physically. These skills and techniques can clearly assist in the important work so many agencies are doing to prevent and address the risk of suicide for those heroes who give their all to protect our communities and make us safer every day.
We need to continue to work at culture change in law enforcement, so that help is always easily available and asking for help is seen as the courageous act it is, rather than weakness; to incorporate mental health, wellness and vicarious trauma prevention programs in our agencies; to teach and practice prevention skills; and be there for one another when we are struggling. It is, after all, our job to ensure that officers are prepared to do their dangerous jobs with the best training and equipment that will effectively protect them as they protect us.
SHIFT Wellness Program a program of the Innocent Justice Foundation, funded by OJJDP
SHIFT provides training and resources for people in ICAC Commands and other individuals exposed to child sexual exploitation and abuse to assist them in:
- Identifying the potential negative impacts of their work, including trauma responses;
- Developing resilience skills to help prevent trauma responses and negative impacts and to address them when they happen; and
- Developing mental health programming and resources in their local commands and affiliate agencies, including having embedded mental health providers for mental wellness check ins and ongoing training for officers.
- Training and resources for other groups impacted by child sexual exploitation including Judges, prosecutors, mental health providers, probation, parole and child protection professionals.
- Training for other law enforcement officers and affiliated professionals who are exposed to other forms of traumatic material in the course of their work.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Talk Saves Lives Brochure from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Badge of Life: Psychological Survival for Police Officers
International Association of Chiefs of Police Suicide Prevention and Awareness Web Page
Breaking the Silence on Law Enforcement Suicide IACP Symposium Report
1Clark, Ron, RN, MS, and Andy O’Hara. 2017. “A Study of Police Suicide Statistics,” The National Study on Police Suicide. Last modified January 4, 2017. http://www.policesuicidestudy.com/id16.html
2FBI Releases Preliminary Statistics for 2016 Law Enforcement Officers Killed in the Line of Duty, 2017. https://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-releases-2016-preliminary-statistics-for-law-enforcement-officers-killed-in-the-line-of-duty
3Law Enforcement Suicide Awareness & Prevention Training Provided to Over 200 Law Enforcement In Massachusetts, 2013. DOJ News Release.
4IACP (International Association of Chiefs of Police). 2014. IACP National Symposium on Law Enforcement Officer Suicide and Mental Health: Breaking the Silence on Law Enforcement Suicides, p. 2. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
5About Suicide, retrieved September 6, 2017. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
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