Oakland police officer

In the last two months, two Oakland police officers have fatally shot themselves. While the causes are unclear, the deaths have focused attention on the issue of police suicides. Studies have shown that police officers are at an increased risk for suicide, and that they are often hesitant to seek help. We discuss what’s being done to help law enforcement officers cope with the stress and trauma of the job.

John M. Violanti, research professor in the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, School of Public Health and Health Professions, University at Buffalo
Brian Cahill, retired executive director of San Francisco Catholic Charities and volunteer suicide prevention trainer with the San Francisco Police Department; his son John Cahill, a San Jose police officer, committed suicide in 2008
Sgt. Mary Dunnigan, officer in charge of San Francisco Police Department's behavioral unit

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    It seems that law enforcement, fire fighters and even military not only have higher suicide rates but higher divorce rates.

    Stress? Not knowing how much we value their service? Few support systems? Or the idea that being in strong professions means not seeking help for fear of being seen as weak in some way?

  • I’ll be Frank

    Isn’t the Oakland PD known for its corruption? Whenever you hear of a “suicide” in the media you should first question whether it was in fact suicide. Murder can be disguised as suicide. Corruption brings about murder. Ask, what if the cops who died were “suicided” by other corrupt cops who wanted to prevent them from blowing the whistle, or testifying? Or what if people more powerful than cops did the murders? Forget cops, the really tragic suicide in our society is that of the journalism industry, which has largely stopped doing their main job of questioning what they are told and have become conveyors of official lies.

    “The Central Intelligence Agency owns everyone of any significance in the major media.” –William Colby, former CIA Director.

    • Bob Fry

      Or, maybe, it’s just suicide. The dealing with the worst of society everyday, and seeing 15-20 more years ahead before you can leave it.

      • I’ll be Frank

        Any cop can quit and get into a different line of work. Many people who are the most eager to become cops are the ones who specifically shouldn’t.

        About suicides, cops have to investigate crimes and when they do so sometimes they encounter crimes by more powerful people. Some of those powerful perps are perfectly willing to murder.

        Heck, the US government recently murdered a journalist in Los Angeles with impunity:

    • Livegreen

      No, OPD is not known for it’s corruption. 4 Officers were involved with Riders. The only reason there is Federal Oversight is the City accepted it in negotiations. No official investigation found them guilty, and 3 were acquitted.

      Blaming all cops blanket, and continuously undermining & blaming officers on both an individual and group basis, without any proof, is the very reason there’s a problem. It’s essentially a form of bias: by doing so you summarily exert bias against an entire group. JUST LIKE RACISM.

      Airing continuous, unjustified personal attacks of Police Officers is bullying just like it is of anybody else. To summarily dismiss a suicide with further insults, based only on your preconceptions without any evidence, is further proof of your ignorance & bullying.

      • I’ll be Frank

        What a crazy non sequitur!

        Sure, not every cop murdered Oscar Grant… Not every cop attacked Occupy protesters…. But corruption is about protecting those who did. When cops are involved, they protect their own rather than let criminals within their ranks be judged.

        • MJ

          Did you even read what Livegreen wrote?

          • I’ll be Frank

            Yes, his posting completely ignored the point I was making, that what is publicly deemed a suicide may actually have been a murder.

            And I find it curious he described this claim to be “bullying”, considering I’m taking a forensic approach to looking at suicide, which is what cops and journalists are supposed to do!

  • frankie avalon

    I am a retired sgt from san francisco and mary dunnigan and the unit saved me from a life of misery. yes it works…..im glad you have them on..

  • felipe robledo

    it seems to me that there is more job satisfaction and lower suicide rates in dept like Sunnyvale, that rotate their officers through the fire department and as paramedics

  • Rahul Khatod

    What about a preventative approach, where all police officers are mandated to go through few hours (annually) of training that allows for venting, healthy discussion and tips to deal with the daily stress of the job? Similar to a pilot having to complete ‘flying hours’ to continue flying. this would help even healthy police officers start to predict a problem before its too late.

  • Ellen Kirschman

    The first responders support network is a peer driven organization sponsoring retreats for first responders with PTSD. go to .Frsn.org for more info.

    Ellen Kirschman PhD

    • Fay Nissenbaum

      Any insights you’d like to share? What symptoms should we watch out for? The show today really ‘fell down’ on the basics. Hand-wringing about the rigors of the job are fine, but alerting us to what symptoms we should intervene on is should have been included.

      • Ellen Kirschman

        Information about symptoms is available at http://www.wcpr2001.org; http://www.badgeoflife.org; “I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know”; and “Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know.”

        Learning about the symptoms is helpful, but keep in mind cops are skilled at masking their feelings. How else would they get a confession or hide their fear and disgust?

        • Fay Nissenbaum

          Thank you, Ellen. Police do not mask their feelings when they ‘act out’ in violence or excessive drinking – the traditional drug of choice for police officers. Also, I did not hear anything about police using anti-depressant drugs and whether such treatment is allowed on the job (I assume that’s a “yes”). Family often dismiss or protect the discovery of problems as they become part of “police culture” where seeking help is considered “weak”, just as it is in the military. I do agree with you about the masking of feelings which can be seen in the way police learn to speak in short-clipped sentences, typically spoken in monotones. In training, they hear that emoting equals a lack of control…
          Cheers to you, Ellen and best of luck in your professional endeavors.

          • Ellen Kirschman

            Thanks for your good wishes. The use of anti-depressant or anti-anxiety drugs is permissible depending upon the side effects and each department’s policy re same. The real challenge is getting cops to take drugs they associate with mentally ill people, slow reaction times, legal problems, and, as you said, weakness. Unwarranted violence and excessive drinking may indeed be masking fear, depression and PTSD. Not for everyone, but for many more than one might imagine.

  • Livegreen

    One of the Oakland Officers who committed suicide was in the unit fingered by the NSA Oversight for issuing faulty warrants. The Officers who were demoted or fired in this unit were mostly junior officers who were just following [faulty] guidelines they were instructed to follow.

    For an officer who has a demotion on their record, with no way out, due to no fault of their own, in a city where political leaders and journalists continuously express their disapproval of officers (no matter whether their good or bad)…I understand the conflicts within the Officer. I send him (them) my sincere appreciation.

    My sincere sympathies to their families. You are gone but not forgotten.

  • Chemist150

    Going out on a limb here…

    This is not a blanket statement of officers by any means; but it seems that people with control issues of various levels would and do tend toward law enforcement. Constant failures at control of positive outcomes would exacerbate feelings of inadequacies.

    Screen the potential officers better with psychological profiles or training. They’re trained in various ways such as shooting, physical combat, etc… Expose them to tough scenarios and monitor their reactions so profiles and outcomes can be predicted overtime.

    The military, for example, makes sure that their elite can deal with the stress that they will encounter, although they don’t screen the

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    Whenever a shooting tragedy like the Navy Yards or Newtown happens, some people talk about more gun control, others talk about more gun ownership, but no politician talks about more mental health services!
    We cut mental health services first when we should be making them more available.

  • Fox789

    I’ve tried to kill myself on a number of occasion and have been hospitalized as a result. I think Thomas Joiner has it right that it it take 3 things for a person to try to kill themselves and suicide is not an impulsive act.

    1) Requires a kind of fearlessness, a fearlessness specifically about physical pain, physical injury and death. Because police officers are exposed to physical pain, physical injury and death, they already have the fearlessness component.

    2) That you’re a burden, my death will be worth more than my life to others.

    3) A profound sense of loneliness, alienation and isolation, cut off from others (i.e., they just don’t understand, no one can relate to my problems, I can’t relate to ANYONE)

  • Nancy Gottlieb

    I work for a Mental Health Public agency. Every year we put on a Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) for Law enforcement. A large part of this training is to assist first responders in recognizing their own stress. I will attaché two flyers at the end of this post for viewing. As to suicide among law enforcements, you only have to compare National rates and those of our armed forces coming back from the middle east to know that it is the trauma and violence that leads to the need to make the pain stop. The difficulty with first responders and solders is the stigma associated with mental health issues or worse yet the inability to hold these terrible events “under Control”. In listening to many of the comments made on your show it is clear that there needs to be education to the public about PTSD and depression. Frist responders are also war vets, they fight the battles on the streets and see violence when it is unexpected. Joel Fay PhD is a former cop now psychologist who specializes in treatment for these groups. You should have him on your show. He is in the bay area. Below is a summary of CIT training and Training for Trauma awareness for First responders. Thank you

    Nancy Gottlieb MFT

    Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) is a program designed to provide Crisis Intervention Training to law enforcement personnel who are often the first point of contact for people in crisis and psychiatric emergency. This training program prepares officers to recognize the signs and symptoms of severe mental illness, with or without the co-occurring condition of substance abuse, and provides them with the skill and knowledge to respond effectively. Safety
    of the officers, the person in crisis and the community are focused on as the main goal of CIT.
    The CIT program is a training that introduces law enforcement personnel to the characteristics, causes, effective treatment and medications for the most common mental illnesses that they are
    likely to encounter on the streets.
    Participants learn how to safely and effectively gain control of
    situation they are likely to encounter on the job involving acute mental health problems and/or substance intoxication.
    In addition, it introduces them to the local community resources that
    can assist them as they develop interventions, with community partners which provide alternatives to incarceration.
    This is done by having the training materials presented by the local
    county Mental Health Department in collaboration with Mental Health consumers and family members: staff from community Based Organizations that are resources for law enforcement; experts in the community on specific topic areas; other County Resources such as Adult Protective Services and Patient Rights. Officers are also provided with information about self-care and managing the challenges related to crisis work.
    Officers are trained in evaluating suicide risk, effective intervention and decision making strategies as well as learning to identify and manage police stress on the job.

    Stress Education:

    STRESS vs. TRAUMA: “Stress” is an everyday occurrence in every occupation and at every age. Everyday stress can be managed through a variety of methods, such as good diet, regular exercise, hobbies, or even self-help books. Unlike stress, no amount of good dieting, exercise or Self help books, will keep emotional trauma from playing havoc on your mind. The trauma that causes PTSD is not simply an injury to one’s “feelings.” It is physical as well as emotional damage is actually done to the brain.

    “Our experience has demonstrated that in the aftermath of a critical incident the worldview of public safety personnel is often challenged with negative consequences. These can include biased or inaccurate media coverage, the necessary administrative/legal investigation process, temporary suspension from full-duty status, stress upon personal relations, second guessing their own actions during the critical incident and the undermining of confidence and beliefs about oneself. If left unchallenged these altered worldviews can disrupt the lives of otherwise psychologically healthy individuals.”

    SPECIAL PRESENTER: Joel Fay Psy.D., ABPP: Joel started his law enforcement career in 1975 and retired from the San Rafael Police Department in 2011, after serving in Law Enforcement for over 32 years. Joel’s past police assignments have included SWAT, Canine, Patrol, Investigations, Street Crimes Unit and Mental Health Liaison. Joel is a licensed psychologist and specializes in emergency services response to critical incident stress. Joel is board certified in Police and Public Safety Psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology. As the Clinical Director of the West Coast Post-trauma Retreat Center in San Rafael he works with emergency service professionals to promote healing and education to help them regain control over their lives and return to work with a new perspective on stress and coping. Joel can be reached at joel.fay@gmail.com.

  • linda

    My ex husband was a police officer- a very gentle, sensitive and honest police officer. We had 3 sons and our oldest became a police officer. He joined when he was 21 and killed himself this last February at 45-almost 46.

    When he was still a rookie, he had a terrible accident when two 21 yr old girls were killed while my son was going through an intersection with red lights and sirens. He lived with this and

    PTSD for 23 yrs!

    During his 23 yrs as a police officer with PTSD, he married, fathered 3 children, then adopted one from Russia. In his last five yrs, he got his BA, MA and then PHd in Psychology with an emphasis on PTSD. He then became a psychologist who counseled police officers right after their traumatic events to lessen the residual trauma they experienced.

    23 yrs ago there was no such thing! While on the department he witnessed unheard of things such as a father who took his dog and 8 yr old son to the beach and shot the dog and then himself in front of the boy. My again traumatized-over and over and over. He would call me in the middle of the night sobbing week after week. The sad part is that as much as there is help now for sufferers, the memories and pain, guilt remain.

    My son was also very sensitive, giving, kind, gentle and honest to a fault. He was an unbelievable husband, father, son and friend. None of the love he received from others could fill the lonliness and guilt he felt constantly.

    We all miss him so much.

    Someone here asked to know the symptoms of a person who might commit suicide. A friend of mine, Margo Requarth, wrote a wonderful book, After a Parent’s Suicide:
    Helping Children Heal you can get from Amazon. in there she says that a chemical imbalance is present when they do this and they are basically “out of their minds.:” Some of the personality problems that these people have are that they are very impulsive, risk taking, drink and/or drug problems, experience past traumas and/or continuing traumas, etc. The book explains so much- everyone should read it and pay attention to the signs. The sooner the intervention the better!
    May all families of suicide victims and all sufferers be in peace!

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