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Suicide Prevention Efforts In Law Enforcement

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This post will be discussing an article published in 2019 in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, titled “Suicide Prevention in U.S. Law Enforcement Agencies: a National Survey of Current Practices” by Ramchand, Saunders, Osilla, Ebener, Kotzias, Thornton, Strang, & Cahill. The general aim of the study was to evaluate the ways in which law enforcement agencies are engaging in suicide prevention efforts in support of their officers.

What did they do?

The authors of this study utilized information obtained via telephone-based or in-person surveys from 110 law enforcement agencies across 30 states within the United States. Interviews aimed to assess what types of suicide prevention services were offered to law enforcement officers.

Why did they do it?

As reported by the authors, the suicide rate in the United States has increased by over 25% since 2000. Currently, suicide is among the top 10 causes of death for adults in the United States. The increase in suicide rates over time has led employers to place more emphasis on developing systems to support their employees.

This has become especially true for law enforcement agencies, given the high-stress environments that often accompany such positions. While the importance of suicide prevention in law enforcement agencies has been recognized, there remains much variability among agencies in terms of their approaches to suicide prevention in the workplace. Therefore, the goal of this study was to evaluate those different approaches.

How did they do it?

110 agencies participated in this study, consisting of urban-based and rural-based groups. Personnel with knowledge about programs offered by the agency for its officers were asked questions about the amount and type of suicide prevention initiatives that the agency was providing. Specific information, such as the intent of the program, the name of the manager of the program, any evaluations, and financial resourcing was obtained about each initiative.

What did they find?

Upon completion of interviews, eight general categories of service were decided upon: (1) mental health services; (2) peer support; (3) promotional materials; (4) training; (5) chaplains; (6) screening; (7) crisis response; and (8) other. Agencies were then placed into 1 of 4 categories based on the intensity of services offered. From least to most comprehensive, these categories were: (1) minimal services; (2) basic services; (3) proactive services; and (4) integrated services.

The majority of agencies who participated in this study did not provide suicide-prevention-specific services to their employees. Instead, agencies more commonly provided broad services related to employee mental health. Only a small number of agencies (n = 11; 10%) were considered to provide “minimal” services, meaning there were no specialized programs in place. Of those 11 agencies, four were state police departments and the rest were generally smaller municipal agencies employing fewer than 50 officers with full arrest powers. The general consensus of these smaller agencies was that “it doesn’t seem to be a big issue”, and only a few individuals interviewed from these agencies expressed interest in any formal program. It is also worth mentioning that funding resources were likely to play a role in the availability of services to some of these smaller agencies.

Thirty-seven agencies (34%) were placed in the category of “basic services.” These agencies offer some form of mental health services, mostly consisting of special procedures for addressing critical incidents that occur on the job. Many of the agencies in this category also offered stress reduction or wellness training programs, and a few agencies reported that they were working on developing or expanding services related to suicide prevention and mental health.

Agencies that had adopted some sort of additional proactive approach to either identify employees at risk for suicide/mental health problems, and/or facilitate these individuals into care were categorized has having “proactive” services. Fifty-five agencies (50%) were categorized into this group. The article explained the six most common practices for these agencies: (1) in-house mental healthcare services; (2) embedded chaplains (and in one case a mental health care provider; (3) creating special programs to address substance misuse; (4) establishing a peer support program; (5) using screening procedures for identifying “high risk” personnel; and (6) providing an official health and wellness program.

Finally, the remaining 7 agencies fell into the “integrated services” group. These agencies provided exceptional programs addressing both suicide prevention and general mental health embedded into their day-to-day procedures.

What does it all mean (our take)?

In our eyes, this is a critical study and we applaud the researchers on their efforts in gathering and analyzing this data. Suicide prevention efforts appear to be increasing as suicidality becomes more prominent. Given the increased risk for first responders to experience trauma, and the suspected link between trauma and increased risk for suicidality, we believe that it is highly important to make sure that first responders are provided appropriate mental health accommodations.

This study clearly demonstrated that the vast majority of agencies (at least those included in this study) are making an effort to try and support the mental health of their officers. However, we feel that introducing more effective preventative approaches should really be the ultimate goal. It seems likely that development and utilization of highly effective, scalable, and [importantly] affordable preventative healthcare tools (i.e., tools that can be used to identify risk) will likely lead to the best outcomes for these individuals.

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