Monday, March 11, 2013

Law Enforcement Officer Suicide and Mental Health

By Yost Zakhary, Director, Woodway Public Safety Department, Woodway, TX, First Vice President, International Association of Chiefs of Police

Chief Yost Zakhary
Director, Woodway Public Safety Department
First Vice President, International Association of
Chiefs of Police
Law enforcement agencies are like families.  A special camaraderie forms in a department where men and women work side by side in service to their communities.  Not unlike more traditional family units, police departments are shaken to the core with the death of one of their own.  The response, organizational and individual, is even more complex when that death comes at the officer’s own hand.

In a profession where strength, bravery, and resilience are revered, mental health issues and the threat of officer suicide are “dirty little secrets”—topics no one wants to address or acknowledge.  The resulting stigma associated with asking for help leaves officers in need with nowhere to turn.  But in reality, mental health is an issue of officer safety, and departments should treat it as such.  From body armor and seat belt use policies, to self-defense and firearms training, any police chief can offer a litany of measures available to ensure an officer’s physical safety.  However, efforts to actively protect and promote officers’ mental and emotional health, in many cases, are sorely lacking.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the world’s leading professional association for law enforcement executives, recognizes this deficiency and is committed to action.  The Association, under the auspices of its broader officer safety and wellness initiative, is taking an active leadership role in erasing the stigma the profession associates with officer mental health issues and emphasizing the importance of suicide prevention and emotional wellness as integral parts of the officer safety continuum.  Several efforts are underway.

The IACP joined the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention in the summer of 2012, and I am honored to serve on its Executive Committee.  Through active involvement with the Workplace Task Force, we hope to advance suicide prevention in the first responder community.

Officer suicide was covered extensively at the 119th Annual IACP Conference in October 2012, with several related workshops and a plenary session.  Attendance at all events exceeded expectations, offering a clear indication of the level of interest and need.  The new Center for Officer Safety and Wellness section of the IACP website also highlights existing suicide prevention resources with more to come.
Our next steps are to provide the field with meaningful leadership and guidance.  With assistance from the US Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, the IACP will host Breaking the Silence: a National Symposium on Law Enforcement Officer Suicide and Mental Health this summer.  Our goals for this symposium are to:
  • Raise awareness regarding suicide and mental health issues in law enforcement and move toward a culture of support and understanding.
  • Identify and evaluate existing resources, best practices, and training related to suicide prevention, intervention, and response programs.
  • Create a strategic plan to guide police chiefs in taking proactive measures to mitigate the risk of suicide and openly address officer mental health as a core element of officer safety. 
The vision of the Action Alliance is “a nation free from the tragic experience of suicide.”  The IACP holds the same “zero–tolerance” approach regarding officer deaths, including suicides.  We are committed to raising awareness among our members of approaches to preventing suicide and providing resources to guide them in developing prevention, intervention, and response programs that will save lives.  We look forward to working with our partners at the Action Alliance and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and leveraging their collective expertise to draft a strategy for suicide prevention in law enforcement.  And we look forward to contributing to the Action Alliance’s goal of saving 20,000 lives in five years.