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STUDY: Police more likely to die by suicide than in line of duty

Published: Jul. 22, 2020 at 9:42 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - As the United States continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s another deadly trend that has been on the minds of law enforcement officials for decades; police officer suicides.

“People have been throwing the word around a lot these days, pandemic. The police officer suicide issue has been a pandemic for probably 20-plus years,” said Doug Wyllie, a spokesman with BLUE H.E.L.P., a national organization that in part helps police officers struggling with mental health issues to connect with proper resources in their respective area. “More officers die by their own hand than felonious assault every year, and it’s usually two times as many.”

Numbers released by Blue H.E.L.P. in January of 2020 showed that in 2019, 228 American police officers died by suicide. That research showed an increase from a study done by The Ruderman Family Foundation released in 2018. That study showed that in 2017, while 129 officers died in the line of duty, 140 died by suicide.

“There has been an uptick, it seems, in the number of reported law enforcement officer suicides,” Wyllie explained. “We don’t know if that’s because there are more suicides or more reporting.”

Doctor Brian Weiland is a licensed psychologist at the Behavioral Health Clinic of Wausau. He explains how dealing with the stresses of police work can add to mental health issues.

“Think of any sort of horror that you’ve heard about in the media. Who has to be there? It’s a police officer. Somebody, some physical human has to be there seeing everything that’s going on, and I don’t know if humans were meant to come in contact with that much trauma on as consistent of a basis as police officers do,” Dr. Weiland explained. “It’s like bits of sand that keep getting put on their backs. If they don’t have the tools or the resources in their life to be able to deal with that, over time it becomes unbearable.

Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven says that while he isn’t aware of any past officer suicides within the Wausau Police Department, mental health is still a topic that he and the department take very seriously.

“It’s normal to need help when you’re experiencing so much trauma,” said the chief, who referenced a study showing that law enforcement officers are called to the scene of around 140 traumatic instances over the course of their careers. “There’s been a culture in law enforcement, frankly, where it isn’t necessarily looked at as a good thing to go seek mental health treatment. So, we’re trying to change that.”

Chief Bliven says it’s not only important for officers to recognize the importance of mental health, but the community as well.

“We’re here to do a job, but we’re here because we want to serve our community, we want to make our community a better place and we want to do that for every single person that lives here,” Chief Bliven explained.

The chief referenced how fortunate he and his officers are to work in a community like Wausau where there is a significant amount of vocal support for the police department. That support goes a long way, especially during a time where officers and the policing profession are under such scrutiny following the death of George Floyd.

“The public scrutiny, the constant criticism; everybody is looking very closely and almost waiting for the mistakes to happen,” explained Dr. Weiland. “Everything they’re doing is being watched through body cameras or cellphones, and to some degree, it is very important for police officers to be held to a different standard. They are the ones who uphold the law and to some degree, it’s very important for pieces of this to continue because of all the power and responsibility that police officers have and responsibility that they have. At the same time, they are human and folks make mistakes, and when these kinds of things happen, it’s important to be empathetic within reason. Certainly, we’re not going to be empathetic if something major; catastrophic occurs as it did with George Floyd.”

“People don’t always seek to understand the perspective of the police department,” Chief Bliven said, who has publicly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis Police Officers that detained George Floyd. “They take a national narrative and apply it to the Wausau Police Department; or a local police department. Every police department is different.”

Chief Bliven says that the Wausau Police Department has implemented a peer’s program and has also increased its police chaplain services. In addition, counseling is always made available following instances such as the officer-involved shooting that took place in Wausau on January 16.

The chief encourages any officer, current or retired, who may be struggling with mental health to reach out and take advantage of the resources that are available.

“There are a lot of resources for you. There’s a lot of people that care about you,” said the chief, speaking to those struggling with mental health. “I really believe that it’s a sign of individual and personal strength if you actually access those resources and take advantage of them. I’ve used mental health treatment in the past; it’s been helpful for me so I know that it works, I know that it’s good for every police officer and not just police officers, but citizens generally to take advantage of those resources that exist.”

Members of law enforcement struggling with mental health issues are encouraged to utilize the resources available at bluehelp.org.

For anyone dealing with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit their website suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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