Webinar presenters Dr. Jeff Thompson and Kevin Morison answered a number of your questions after their presentation, An Occupational Risk: What Law Enforcement Agencies Can Do to Prevent Officer Suicide. Here are just a few of their responses.
Audience Question: If our agency does not take a serious stance on the issue of officer suicide, how do we address this?
Kevin Morison: Well, I’ll start, I think it did. Picks up on the last comment I made, the leadership from the top is critically important. But I think they’re probably also informal leaders throughout the organization who, if they take a proactive stance on talking about it, on raising the issue on, on sharing resources, and ideas, and thoughts. That’s one way. Jeff, what do you think, you’re obviously close, you’re in an agency that has taken it seriously? But what do you think?
Dr. Jeff Thompson:Yeah, it’s an important question with Maggie. Thanks for asking that because it shows the reality of it. It’s not always awesome and perfect, and agencies don’t necessarily always embrace it, and sometimes it’s because of the misunderstanding. And I think part of it is there are micro and macro approaches, right? And you look through, as Kevin said, with the recommendations in leadership embracing it, and unfortunately, that’s not the case. What it is, they said it’s complicated in the approach. So, what else can be done? And sometimes, it’s on the peer level. And I don’t mean it’s certainly peer support members, just how they make sure they look after each other, regardless of the supervisors and the higher-ups and the executives. Regardless of what are they doing on a day-to-day basis. How do we emphasize the mental and physical health? And pushing that and making sure that they’re aware of the risk factors and warning signs, for example, and, look, it’s not perfect but ultimately, it’s something, something’s got to be done. And as you work towards that and look, and I’m not a boy’s fighter and I love Kevin, how you said it. I thought I was toned down today but I think It’s where we look at. What are we talking about? We’re talking about suicide, which is awful. But not every officer killed himself, do they? Some of them dedicate their whole career. And then they finally retire and they’re a shell of what they used to be and that’s awful, and that stinks too. We’ve got to take ownership of ourselves too. And even if you have that crappy boss or bosses, it is looking after yourself and each other of all ranks, it’s got to be good enough for today, as we also look for those long-term systemic changes. And I’m not sure if it’s the answer you’re looking for, but I’m just trying to be as honest as I can.
Audience Question: Well, piggybacking on that, many supervisors feel they can’t talk about this because they feel like they would get in trouble. Like with a HIPAA violation for asking if somebody feels suicidal. So, therefore, they don’t. Other officers just feel uncomfortable discussing it. What do you recommend? Do you conduct courses on how to communicate to help law enforcement address this? Or what do you recommend?
Dr. Jeff Thompson: Let me just say one thing too is Kevin and I know each other really well. As we call it just laughed right now. Please don’t misinterpret this. I’m not minimizing or making a joke of any of this. It’s what I do for a living. It’s super serious but from the world of resilience. And I only mentioned perspective, we got to figure out how to also enjoy our lives too. Because this stuff is heavy. And dealing with it every day. If it was constantly just that series, I look aspect, it will, you know, will little break me down, and that’s why I’m not laughing a little, any of this. That being said, it’s the idea of, when we talk about suicide prevention, it is uncomfortable, it’s always going to be uncomfortable, because you’re talking to a colleague or somebody that works under you, asking if they’re thinking about taking their life. But what do we need to do? We need to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and the best way to become comfortable with the uncomfortable aspect of asking a question, and potentially if somebody’s suicidal getting trained in it. Being confident in yourself, knowing that you’ve been trained, and knowing what’s a myth and what’s not, and that, again, goes back to Kevin’s recommendations. Where I genuinely. I get nothing out of this, other than, I know what each of you listeners will get by downloading that file that Kevin keeps mentioning, and where those recommendations around get trained in it. But here’s the other thing, too. The metaphor I like to use is, you don’t always have to go through the front door to get in. And what do I mean by that is for supervisors, if you’re not sure. And even if you’re not feeling comfortable asking somebody, get somebody. Getting your peer support member, say “Hey. Why don’t you go to check on Mikey, or why don’t you go check on Sarah”? Let me, I don’t know what to do. And okay, you peer support them. So that’s where we are truly a team and working together as a team. But also making sure you’re comfortable with checking in with someone because there’s nothing wrong with that. One cool last thing is not a plug, but a recommendation. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, if you go to their site, they have a whole section called having a real convo and how to handle these really tough conversations. They’re one group that does it in. We do internal training and I know other agencies like Kevin mentioned.
Kevin Morison: If I can just add one thing. This is to let you know, the training is certainly important because one of the things is, is the language that we use around this topic is so important. And Jeff educated all of us. Two years ago, I was saying committed suicide, and Jeff and others educated why that’s inappropriate, and not helpful term about suicide. So, you know, one of our recommendations is to have a communications plan and to use language. That is sensitive and appropriate, that words matter in this space. And so, I think, you know, in having those conversations, learning the appropriate terminology is critically important as well.
Host: Absolutely. You know, one of our longtime presenters, Amy Morgan, always talks about how the first time you ask somebody, “are you thinking about hurting yourself?” … the first time you say it, it’s going to feel weird. It’s going to feel uncomfortable. But learning how to ask that question is so critically important. Jeff, you were talking about humor. I did want to mention one of one of our folks just e-mailed, and there is a there’s a website called Man Therapy, I believe, Dr. Sally Spencer Thomas still works with that group. Fantastic organization. It does incorporate a little bit of humor to create some levity. So, definitely check that one out as well.
Dr. Jeff Thompson: Sally is awesome, by the way. She does phenomenal work.
Host: Yes, she does. I worked with her for about 10 years at a university. She’s an amazing person and so is the work she’s done. …Coming out of her own personal tragedies, she’s just fantastic.
Audience Question: How do we tell if our officers really are doing well? Because, again, as we’ve learned from other presenters, appearances can be misleading. If somebody doesn’t want you to know that they’re suicidal, you’re not going to know necessarily. How do we tell?
Dr. Jeff Thompson: Yeah, that one. I don’t want to go too much into this, but we don’t know. Well, first of all, cops are really good at, you know, hiding stuff. That’s what makes us good cops. In these situations, though, if someone is having suicidal thoughts, it works terribly to our own detriment. But also, quite often, not all the time. They might be little, subtle signs. And let me be very clear, as I just said that, I never blame anybody. And I’m not saying “Oh, you, miss that sign, or you didn’t see that, because it’s not your fault”. It’s nobody’s fault that somebody took their life. And you can’t blame yourself for that. But, it’s the idea of the more we’re aware of the signs. We know what to look for. But it’s also then when we ask these questions, it’s based on the content. Maybe they are really well kept together. They’re just in shambles inside themselves. And it’s super, super complicated. But I think the quick answer is just being aware of the risk factors and warning signs and not just for the other person you worked with also for ourselves, it’s got to start with ourselves and the best way to smash that stigma is practicing what we preach. And then, the other thing Kevin mentioned, is, there are these online tools, like these self-assessments, or they have different names where you can just do a quick mental health checkup. And for all those awesome people listening right now that have really good physical workout routines. Ask yourself, what are your mental push-ups? And if we’re putting emphasis on the physical taking care of ourselves, it’s also got to be mental. And I think we have to try and dig deeper and push further and to figuring out the sort of mental health checkups, I think they are critical.
Kevin Morison: If I can add one thing to Chris it is included in our report. One of the amazing things that we did at our meeting was we had three, I guess, maybe two colonels, one retired. Three officers who at one point in their lives and their careers had suicidal thoughts and had contemplated it had come this close to taking their lives. And they spoke about their experiences. One of them is Brian Fleming who is retired. He’s retired from the Boston Police and he went on to head the Department Peer Support Unit and so, you know if you read the three stories. It’s very interesting. And as Jeff said, they were all three of them were really good at hiding, you know, their pain and their anguish. And just, it was really an interesting perspective at the meeting and we tried to capture, you know, their experiences and how they came out of those and where they’re at now. You know, stories of one of them, by the way, is Ernie and Joe from San Antonio, who’s in a film that some people may be aware of, really interesting individuals.
Audience Question: Donald asks something that I’m betting a lot of folks are wondering, probably worried about. Considering our current public perception of law enforcement and the current climate that we’re all living in. Do you think our suicide numbers will increase due to the stigma and other corresponding pressures?
Dr. Jeff Thompson: So, I looked into this because we’ve had this question, the first little, quick answers, we don’t know. We do know that overall type situation’s like this and not just police, but in general, you know, COVID-19. But also, just the way police are being treated. It’s awful. And this is where I’d say of course it’s taken its toll, will it lead to increased suicide? We’re not, the answer is, we’re not sure. But we look at it, it was early preliminary data that preliminary earlier data if we look at military. And of course, we’re not military, but we can learn from them. Suicide numbers. They were saying, I’m trying to make sure I say this correctly, is were lowered during times of war, because in part of the thinking was if I remember correctly, because they felt like they had, they had a job, they were on a mission. And they felt like they, you know, they were in mission mode. But of course, you can’t be mission mode forever. But the newer, a more recent data kind of contradicted that, and this just shows how complicated it is. But also, the idea of building personal resilience, it’s not one single thing that would lead somebody to take in their life. It’s an accumulation of things, and it just goes back to taking care of yourself. And let me just say it’s a throwback to you, Kevin. Let me just say one thing, too, and I didn’t say too early, and let me be very clear, somebody reaching out for help is a true sign of resilience. And if we can call for backup on a tough job out on the street, it’s got to be the same if we’re going through some personal struggles. Because we can hide things really well. We’ve got to realize, we got to smash the stigma. That’s insane. There’s nothing wrong with calling our brother and sister, and saying “Hey, I need some help here, can you give me your hand?”. And this is where we got to start backing that up with our actions. Kevin, what do you think?
Audience Question: Kevin, this might be more appropriate for you when we talk about Officer Suicide. Does this cover all types of officers? And I know that the surveys are going to be as varied, as widely ranged, as you can imagine here. The question was, are we including all types of officers? Are we talking about like the animal welfare officers, the probation officers, corrections officers, dispatchers, are we including all of it? Or when we talk about this challenge of officer suicide, are we really only talking about sworn officers?
Kevin Morison: Many of the groups that, you mentioned are sworn law enforcement officers, many, you know, animal, fish and wildlife, and the like are, are sworn officers, as well. But yeah. I think, you know, Jeff can talk from experience in NYPD, their programs cover the full range of employees including civilian employees. I worked as a civilian employee in two different police agencies. And you know, honestly, there was a time when civilians were not afforded the same resources and attention on issues like this as sworn brothers and sisters. But I think today and certainly progressive agencies like the NYPD, the focus is on everyone. Because you know there are stresses that all face, you mentioned call takers and dispatchers. I think sometimes we forget, they’re really the first of the first responders and the level of, you know, stress, I mentioned earlier, the critical incidents, the correlation between exposure to critical incidents and PTSD. Call takers and dispatchers live by critical incident. They’re feeling almost every single one of those before they get farmed out to how many other officers are responding. So, yes, certainly, I think as agencies think about their program, they most definitely should be considering all their employees, including their civilian members.
Audience Question: Is there training that we can get on how to do psychological autopsies?
Dr. Jeff Thompson: I’ll just say, in full disclosure. I helped develop a law enforcement psychological autopsy version with AAS, I’m not selling it, you can get more information there. But like I said earlier too, there’s different, there’s a great book by Anton ??/ that talks about it. If you search on Amazon, I’m happy to share my materials with people on that, trying to make money off of this, that would be awful of me. I can e-mail it to people, and people want to reach out to me after the call. This stuff is too damn important, but there’s also, there’s not just one way. Like I said, Doctor Mann does it in a certain way at Columbia. Matthew Knock has done it for years up at Harvard. Reach out to either them, too. But just make sure when you put some work and effort into research and make sure that it’s legit because there is a structure to it. That’s the way I look at it.
Click Here to Watch a Recording of An Occupational Risk: What Law Enforcement Agencies Can Do to Prevent Officer Suicide.