The Opposite End of the Spectrum
By Dave Baker
When it comes to ranking the most stressful jobs, policemen are always right up there with coal miners, oil rig workers, and firemen. The physical toll is obvious, but the hidden cost of mental stress is reflected in a disturbing statistic: police have an alarmingly high rate of suicide. More officers kill themselves each year than die from any job-related incidents. “Police officers operate at what we call hyper vigilance, meaning they are constantly on edge and looking over their shoulders. You can only maintain that for so long before you crash,” Louise Pyers, Executive Director and founder of CABLE [Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement] explained. A study conducted by the mental health support group, the Badge of Life, concluded that police officers have a suicide rate of 17 per every 100,000 versus the national average of 11 per 100,000.
For police officers, going through a traumatic experience on the job isn’t always the catalyst for such an extreme action as suicide. It can be the smaller things that build and resonate in their minds. Pyers recalled one officer she worked with who took a call at an elderly man’s home on Christmas Day. The man died of natural causes, but when his family appeared on the scene they immediately began arguing over his possessions; handpicking what they believed they were entitled to and not giving their deceased relative a second thought. “The little things build up and stick in their minds. Police officers see things that you or I wouldn’t dream of. To say they’re not affected by those things is erroneous.” Officers who handle a critical situation on the job are offered critical incident stress debriefing, a process used to prevent or limit any post-traumatic stress. “We train them [peer support officers] in how to help their peers after a critical event; an event that would blow anyone’s mind, really. Police are often told “suck it up, this is your job.” What happens with all that emotion and stress later? It accumulates and over time it can spiral out of control,” Pyers said.
In response, Pyers worked in conjunction with the Badge of Life in 2007 to begin using peer support groups as a means of getting officers the help they need. While they may be hesitant to discuss life on the job with a civilian, the theory behind peer support reinforces the notion that policemen are more apt to talk with a fellow officer, someone empathetic to what they are going through.
“Being a police officer changes a person, not necessarily for the better. We train peer officers to teach fellow officers how to have a balance in their life. Spend time with your family, invest in relationships with friends who aren’t police officers, those types of things create a balance and when they don’t have that balance, things can go haywire.” It is when these stresses linger, Pyers pointed out, that a number of issues arise, resulting in an officer’s personal and professional life spiraling to the point of no control from negative coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse, gambling, and hyper-sexuality – not to mention long term implications on their well-being.
“Most people don’t see a dead body until grandma or grandpa die, but we see them all the time,” said Sgt. Clarke Paris of the Las Vegas, NV Metropolitan Police Department. Sgt Clarke spoke at a conference held at Central Connecticut State University in March of 2009 sponsored by CABLE and CCSU’s Institute for the Study of Crime and Justice. Lisa Backus of the New Britain Herald reported on the story. “This has nothing to do with how strong you are. If you need help, you can’t do it yourself.” Sgt. Paris has served as a police officer for over 25 years and produced the documentary The Pain Behind the Badge, a film detailing the accounts of three officers pushed to the brink of suicide due to job-related stress, unraveling personal lives, and PTSD. In 2011, Sgt. Paris, who continues to work in the LVMPD, published My Life for Your Life, the first book focusing exclusively on police suicides.
Peer support training among Connecticut law enforcement has been very well received, with 92 state troopers qualifying to offer peer support. The number grows each year. Utilizing organizations such as State Troopers Offering Peer Support [STOPS], a program headed by Sgt Troy Anderson, significant improvements have been made in giving police officers a better outlet to voice their frustrations and discontent.
Suicide among Connecticut law enforcement came to the forefront in 2011 when four police officers committed suicide between the months of April and June: Southbury officer Anton Tchorzyk Jr, Groton’s Lieutenant Thomas Forbes, New Britain’s Captain Matthew Tuttle, and Rocky Hill’s Sergeant Leonard Kulas. Pointing to the fact that Tchorzky, Forbes, and Tuttle were nearing retirement before they took their lives, Pyers said, “We do know that police officers nearing retirement are at higher risk. Some officers put all their identity into being a police officer, and then when it comes time to retire they don’t feel they have a purpose.’’ Careers are, at times, integral parts of a person’s identity; however, veterans of law enforcement and the military are more apt to experience difficulty adjusting to life after the force or service than retirees from other professions. CABLE and CCSU organized another conference in August of 2011 in response to this rash of suicides, drawing over 300 officers from across the state.
There is no concrete explanation for why these four police officers killed themselves. Law enforcement is a complex profession, exposing officers to numerous traumatic events. However, advancing the quality of mental health care for all those involved in criminal justice, both inside the system and out, remains a vital objective. Pyers feels that the STOPS program and peer support are essential to making positive strides. “It’s [police work] one of the toughest jobs that people have to deal with, in terms of exposure to stress and trauma. They’re expected to be robots and we’re trying to humanize them. The better they take care of themselves, the better they’ll be able to cope over time.”