Forty retired police commit suicide per year, according to BadgeofLife.com, a site dedicated to arresting the growth of these police suicide statistics.
While young policemen see retirement as a distant ceremony in the future and a few nebulous dreams of “leisure time,” retiring the badge can actually be a huge psychological blow. “The last trauma,” Badge of Life calls it, saying, “Few departments recognize the tremendous impact retirement in general has on an officer.”
Currently, in many departments, the whole process of police retirement begins and ends with the paperwork. Yet many in the field of officer safety believe the process should begin much sooner.
In the language of Badge of Life,
Retirement preparation shouldn’t be a simple eight hours of paper-completion before throwing the officer out the front door.
Along with the badge, police officers leave behind a brotherhood that both stood behind them and counted on them in matters of life and death. When these same officers retire, the brotherhood that respects their past service, will also treat them with an air of “out of sight out of mind,” Badge of Life reveals. What is least discussed is that with the badge, an officer leaves behind the sense of fulfillment, service, and purpose, and acquires — potentially — some unwelcome visitors: long-suppressed memories of traumatic events.
Visits from unwelcome memories, often labeled “delayed PTSD,” underscore another key loss that occurs when the badge is set aside: loss of control.
In fact, just about anything that was easily be pushed aside in the urgency of the officer’s work can now assail the officer, unchecked, in retirement: family alienation and relationship strains, aches and pains, surgeries and illnesses, or alcohol and drug dependence. Without daily support from the Blue family, the officer comes face to face with his or her problems, and the growing sense of lost control balloons into a monster.
After the suicide of one officer, Badge of Life reports, a mourner at his funeral spoke:
Police are control freaks… We are. We think we have control over our lives, but we don’t. I think Eddie felt he was losing control over his.
Reinforcement of control tendencies begins in school and training. One trainer, who disagreed with a well-publicized incident where a threatened officer withheld deadly force, reported that he would be sure to teach his students that this much-praised hesitation was an unwise move. “They have to control the scene,” he told NPR’s Martin Kaste.
But suicide is just a canary in the coal mine. “For every police suicide, there are about 1,000 police officers suffering from some symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.”
As everyone from Badge of Life to the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing has suggested, the roots of suicide and other problems inherent in police retirement aren’t without solutions. For example, officer safety specialists have recently begun talking about a seamless counseling process woven into the routine fabric of policing, beginning with annual mental health check-ins. Familiarity with voluntary check-ins will provide support along the continuum of career benchmarks. As officers integrate this new means of support into their approach to work, they have an added resource to help in anticipating and preparing for retirement-related issues as the date approaches.
Engaging in thoughtful discussions about the mental health of first responders, concerned leaders in the field have compiled some practical solutions. In general, the solutions urge departments to go beyond “business as usual” in the interests of strengthening the force overall. In addition, these proposals ask the individual to take initiative in preserving good mental health.
Some of the solutions are innovative, but they could potentially deliver strong results on adoption.
In part 2, we take a closer look at these solutions.