Tears of a Cop's Sister -- Cops, PTSD and Suicide
by Cheryl Rehl-Hahn
Law Enforcement Suicide is a terrible, yet very real tragedy, which touches the lives of loved ones' across the nation. Our nation's *finest* are dying, taking their own lives, and no one seems to be doing anything about it.
In 1995, The New York City Police Department lost one officer in the line of duty. That very same year, seven officers completed suicide. This is an epidemic that shows the same fact, over and over again... suicide amongst law enforcement is higher than any other type of death for those on active-duty. This is a serious problem that needs to be recognized and addressed.
According to a study by the University of Buffalo, police officers are eight times more likely to die by their own hand than by line-of-duty. Eight to one. How I wish I'd known that. My family and I spent close to ten years worrying about my brother. We were so fearful that he would be shot and killed by someone while on-duty. Never ever realizing the horrible fact that chances were much more in the favor of his doing the job himself.
It's actually very hard to get good solid statistics on law enforcement suicide through individual departments. Whenever possible, an officer's suicide will be recorded as accidental to save the force and the family undue *embarrassment*. OK -- let's not face the fact that we have some real problems here which need to be addressed. Instead, let's just cover it up as much as possible so as not to cause embarrassment -- and who cares about other officers who will continue to die because there is no education or awareness programs implemented. Of course, why have programs like that when the *official* reports are showing accidental deaths? It's time to get real. Time to come to terms that suicide is no accident. For the most part, it is preventable through educating, alerting and communicating with the officers' and their families. We should be told about the facts and figures regarding suicide. We should be informed about the signs and symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This must stop!
Everyday, officers are exposed to sadness and despair. It could be seeing the plight of a neighborhood ravished with crime, poverty and drugs. Or an innocent child killed from a drive-by shooting. It could be the battered wife crying for protection from an abusive husband/partner. Or the soft whimpers of an innocent child -- molested and bruised. It could be witnessing the last gasp of breath from a dying victim... and then having to inform the family of the death. Add to this -- changing shifts of day and night work and it's going to affect you one way or another.
A cop is expected to show fearlessness in dangerous situations. To show no emotions when tensions are high. This is something that is learned. It is not natural. It is not natural to put yourself into dangerous situations everyday. As Tom Gillen of the Central Florida Police Stress Unit says: "As explained to me by the professionals, the unique thrill of police work is not to be had cheaply. The price to forfeit in my, and apparently many other officers' lives, is individual emotion. Since so much of what a cop deals with is so very unnatural and painful, we have learned to avoid the normal human reaction to these events and disassociate ourselves.... The critical problem with this reaction is that a person cannot selectively choose to suppress only the harmful segments. The caring side of our emotions is also shut down. Hence the high incidence of alcoholism, divorce and suicide among law enforcement officers. The term for this is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder --- PTSD."
Of course, I'm fueled in the passion to end this plight because it has touched me personally. I lost my best friend to suicide in June of 1997. He was my brother, and he was an officer for the city of Philadelphia for nine yeears. Here are a few symptoms he experienced: difficulty breathing, racing heart, trouble sleeping, chest pain, suspicion, anxiety, indigestion, inability to rest, muscle tremors, apprehension, and even prowling around his house in the middle of the night looking for the bad guy. He went to the doctor for help and was told he was having panic attacks. Medication was prescribed and he was NOT diagnosed with PTSD -- even though all his symptoms were classic signs that suggested he suffered from it. He did not like the way the meds affected him so he went off them. Counseling was advised, but he didn't want it showing on his record -- so he declined. It is my hope that someday police counseling will be mandatory so we can give officers the aid they deserve without the *sissy-crazy-label* that's attached to it. I only wish that I had known about this disorder --- that my brother and family members were alerted to this problem. There's a very strong possibility that Bobby would be here today -- not just a face on a website. It hurts deeply to have his love and friendship ripped from my life. Please... if you think you or someone you love has PTSD... get help.