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"The Silent Killer": Police Officers Die By Suicide More Often Than In Their Line Of Work

"The Silent Killer": Police Officers Die By Suicide More Often Than In Their Line Of Work

According to experts, the extreme stress these officers go through wears them down, leading to problems with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse.

Mark DiBona is just one of the many cops that contemplated ending his life, but he did not pull the trigger. For him, it all started when DiBona, a Boston native then working as a sheriff’s sergeant in Florida, was one of the thousands who traveled to New York City to assist in the recovery and clean-up right after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Even though he wishes he could have done more, he says it's the smell of the burnt flesh that followed him home, reports People. The smell lingered on, it wasn't something that was easy for him to forget. Soon enough, Mark started to smell burnt flesh in his sleep, even though he was miles away from New York City. 


 
 
 
 
 
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In his nightmares, the dead reached out to him, as he saw himself back at the site of the fallen towers. They did not seem to ask for anyone else.  “They were saying, ‘Help Mark. Mark, help me.’ “ With all this happening in his life, Mark says he began to struggle at work, especially with a new and demeaning boss. He was worried that if he sought help, he would be unfit for duty, It was during this dark period in his life that he gained a significant amount of weight. He also avoided his wife. Because he had had enough of these recurring nightmares, he decided to end his life.



 

 

But, if he had, he would be one of the dozen law enforcement officers who kill themselves every year, haunted and hopeless. Suicide has killed more officers than working in their line of duty has. Today, DiBona travels around the country educating other officers on how to keep living, too. A cluster of officer suicides in New York City earlier this year put a new spotlight on the issue as Congress moved forward with a mental-health funding bill to help prevent more deaths. President Donald Trump signed the Supporting and Treating Officers in Crisis Act, or STOIC Act, into law in July.



 

 

“There’s people out there that love you and want to help you. But unless you come forward, unless your partner says something or friend, we’re not gonna know,” Police Commissioner James O’Neill said. “Suicide is the No. 1 killer of law enforcement,” DiBona says. “The general public probably doesn’t know that, and I think every agency should be addressing these issues.” As of Aug. 1, 114 officers have killed themselves in the United States in 2019! This has gone up a shocking 24 percent, according to the police suicide prevention group Blue H.E.L.P. 


 
 
 
 
 
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The same group mentioned that in 2018, while 153 officers died in the line of duty 163 officers died by suicide, making it the leading cause of death for the profession. Even though there isn't much information on these suicides, unlike on-duty deaths, John Violanti, a police stress expert and University at Buffalo professor, said that some suicides are likely still mischaracterized “for the protection of the officer and sometimes for the family.” While mental illness is a common contributor, suicides are generally the result of multiple factors combining in complicated ways.


 
 
 
 
 
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According to experts, the extreme stress these officers go through wears them down, leading to problems with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse. Think about it, a single traumatic experience affects us so much, but for these officers, it is in their line of work. It’s “all the horrible things they’ll see that the people in other occupations will never see,” Violanti explains. “They really prey on the psyche, and eventually over time the accumulation of stress caused by these events can cause an inability to cope.” But to many, it’s just “the nature of the job,” adds Violanti.


 
 
 
 
 
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Suicide rates have been rising more broadly in the last decade, Violanti says. Officers are not immune to the same social and psychological forces affecting others. The moment someone decides to jump or pull the trigger or swallow a fistful of pills is known as suicidal crises, and it can be overcome with intervention, states experts. But, in the case of officers, help has not been given to them on time, so they either bottle it up, or drink their feelings away. “If I go tell somebody, they’re going to think I’m crazy and I don’t want to be labeled,” DiBona says of his decision to conceal his issues from his agency.

 

Officers also have access to guns quite easily, because they have their department-issued guns with them at all times. Off-duty officers who are at risk could have their guns locked up, as a policy solution, but that has its own perils. “Removing the firearm is a symbolic way of saying, ‘You just lost your identity as a police officer,’ ” which can be even more detrimental to an officer’s health, Violanti says. The fear of being added to the “rubber gun squad,” or becoming an officer without a weapon, also adds to the hesitancy to reach out for help. When these are the options they're faced with, they'd rather stay silent than seeking help. 

 

Violanti says the refusal to address the mental health toll of policing is systematic. “It’s been a subject of denial, if you will, all these years because officers and administration don’t want to talk about it,” he says. “You know there’s a part of the police culture which sort of dictates that officers cannot be weak, cannot have problems, because they feel it’s going to affect their work.” The STOIC Act allots 7.5 million dollars each year through 2024 to fund mental health grants for law enforcement. The legislation was originally sponsored in the Senate by Missouri’s Josh Hawley and Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse.


 
 
 
 
 
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“Police officers are heroes, and they deserve the same level of help and support that they provide to our communities every day,” Hawley tells PEOPLE in a statement. “This legislation proves that, even in these divided times, legislators working across the aisle can find real solutions to our nation’s problems.” The law's funding goes to the officers as well as to the families, but at the discretion and need of individual agencies seeking to provide resources for their own officers. Including relatives is key, Whitehouse says, as they are “very likely … to be the first to notice and maybe even call the chief and say, “Hey, my spouse seems a little stressed is everything okay, I’m a little worried, or what can we do?’ “


 
 
 
 
 
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Based on his own experience, DiBona believes that when an officer starts working, they should have access to peer support groups and annual mental health checkups. He acknowledges that “cops are good bullshitters and they know what to say” when they talk to a mental health provider, but he believes that a professional might be able to discern when something is wrong. Since there is a lot of paranoia associated with talking to therapists and social workers, confidential peer support groups and advisers are other alternatives to helping these cops out. 


 
 
 
 
 
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Disclaimer : This is based on sources and we have been unable to verify this information independently.

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