Holland: Are our police officers in a mental health crisis?

Anthony Holland, Op-ed Contributor

Content warning: This article mentions suicide.

It is extremely difficult to look back on 2020 and not define it as one of the most polarizing, contentious and exigent years in recent history. A wave of a crippling pandemic, civil unrest, heavy talks on discrimination, and an unpleasant presidential election left the nation more divided. The erosion of relations between the police and communities throughout the country has continued as an unabated headline following a tightening lens as a nation demanded justice for the likes of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and so many others.

In the conversations surrounding police defunding and brutality, a major narrative being missed was an uptick in suicide among law enforcement officers. That figure has been on the incline since 2016, prompting ABC News to publish appalling figures indicating more police officers died by suicide than in the line of duty since 2019. Officer safety — and national security — remains sidelined as anti-police rhetoric trends, contributing to an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, alcoholism, and other unhealthy coping mechanisms. These have led to underlying psychological trauma, like an increase of about 100 reported self-inflicted officer deaths from 2016 to 2019.

In a profession where one takes an oath to protect and serve, no recruit undertakes this experience without the expectations of imminent danger. But, little is being done to emphasize the humanity of those officers and mentally protect them from the trauma of consistently being the first to arrive at distressing scenes, disasters and episodes of violence. Many have grown to associate withstanding these things as becoming a tougher or more seasoned cop, but research and statistics prove the opposite.

In March, Chicago Police Department struggled with the suicide of one veteran officer in the Town Hall patrol district in Lakeview, Ill. Days later, another officer died by suicide, prompting age-old questions regarding the stigmas of seeking mental health assistance within police agencies. In a division that has seen at least 10 officer deaths by suicide since 2018, as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, more Chicago police officers have reported seeking mental health assistance. But this still leaves a resonating question: How we are tackling this issue as a nation when, as NPR reported, more than 30 officers have already died by suicide three months into 2021? The silence surrounding mental health and our law enforcement officers is deafening, as statistics increasingly show dehumanized coping techniques and self-destructive patterns in the interpersonal lives of many. However, only three to five percent of 18,000 United States law enforcement agencies implementing or creating suicide prevention programs or counseling services, according to the Ruderman Family Foundation, leaving this as a reactive issue for many agencies.

Through research analysis of police, culture reports show that many officers continue to unwittingly perpetuate a negative connotation with seeking mental support. Exploration of police culture suggests that emotion or being impacted by things can make them be viewed as “weak,” initiating the depersonalization, solivagant behavior or emotional numbing. This in turn also attributes to the erosion of many officers’ relationships and the cynicism which develops following consistent exposure to the woes of society which many will never experience.

Like many communities, law enforcement is no different in facing pervasive gaps in mental health and wellness. However, law enforcement agencies need and deserve the support in developing these programs, as good mental health is essential in aiding and keeping our country and communities safe. As society stereotypes and negatively labels an entire profession, wellness programs intended to support this ostracized population seem like they’re not being prioritized, contributing to the silence surrounding this pressing issue and the dehumanization of law enforcement officers in mainstream society. Though no words can absolve the unspeakable actions of a few, as we demand better quality from our local law enforcement, do we not believe it can start with the mental wellness of those sworn to protect us?

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

Anthony Holland is a graduate student at Northwestern. Holland can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.