Monday, September 20, 2010

Drove down beautiful Highway 101 last week to attend the 15th Annual California Peer Support Association conference in Ventura. I was particularly fired up to hear two of the scheduled speakers, both from the east coast: Dr. John Violanti and Janice McCarthy.

Violanti is a professor at the New York State University at Buffalo, a researcher and a leading expert in police psychology. He was also a New York State Trooper for 23 years.

Policing is strongly influenced and dependent upon science. Everything from collision investigations to crime scene processing to criminal profiling is based on the scientific method of inquiry. John Violanti is here to say that the same scientific method is giving us good information about the mental health of police officers. The news isn’t great, but it’s actionable. As individual officers, supervisors and administrators we CAN do some things to make things better.

Dr. Violanti noted the important role of supervisors in knowing their people and being able to recognize the signs and symptoms of suicidality. He said suicidal people almost always communicate their intention to kill themselves before they act.

When we read news articles about officers committing suicide we frequently hear something along the line of, “It was a complete came out of nowhere.” To that the SCIENCE says, “BS!” If departments provided quality training to line supervisors in this area we could prevent some officer suicides.

Remember, suicide is the final act of a human being who has endured immense suffering. Alcoholism, depression, traumatic stress (the list goes on) are all correlated to suicidality, and they’re all treatable conditions. To paraphrase Violanti, suicide is “completely preventable.”

Janice McCarthy lost her husband, Capt. Paul McCarthy to suicide in 2006. A powerful speaker and a strong, determined woman, Janice gives a face to all those survivors of police suicide. Survivors everyone it seems would rather forget. She holds a mirror up to a law enforcement industry that generally hates introspection and says, “Here I am, this is real.”

Capt. McCarthy didn’t end his life because of “family problems,” as we so frequently hear. He died of an untreated psychological injury. Believe it. He was psychologically injured on the job, tried but was denied appropriate treatment, went back to work and repeatedly re-injured himself. Each time trying and each time being denied treatment. Risk managers know the importance of fixing broken tibias. They are at a loss about Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. In 2010 this is unacceptable.

Untreated PTSD can take your life. If you don’t believe me, talk to Janice. She’ll explain it to you in a way you won’t soon forget.

Serving as an emcee of sorts for the conference was Andrew O’Hara from Badge of Life. This organization emphasizes what in public health is called “primary prevention.” Let’s not wait until our officers are suffering, pushing their patrol cars around our neighborhoods while suffering quietly. Let’s do preventative mental health. Badge of Life is chomping at the bit to send you educational materials, or come out to your department to train you. Their website is chalk full of useful written material and videos. Badge of Life also directs their attention to retirees, another group that we seem to disown from the police “family.” All their material is free.

The conference was quite heavy at times. I don’t think I’m alone, however, in returning to my department with a renewed sense of how vital peer support is.

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if not now, when?"



  1. How do you get past the "Suck it up and be a tough guy" mentality that dominates most agencies? Don't most officers balk at that "liberal panty-waist shrink stuff?" I know they use psychological principles when dealing with the public, but they don't seem to want to admit that those same principles apply to themselves. Haven't they been trained to believe that willpower can overcome "human weakness?" How do you get past this?

  2. That's the million dollar question suz. I don't know about most officers, but many do. More newer officers are coming out of academies with an understanding of how their own mental health is important. The problem is that they are then socialized into the prevailing police culture, so it's a real problem.

    I see it sort of as a combination of grass roots (i.e. individual officers becoming more informed) efforts and convincing police administrators about how attending to these issues is not just the right thing to do, but it's also good business.