Von Luft: Police need to address causes of suicide in their ranks

By Kevin Von Luft

Sadly, it often takes the suicide of somebody famous to revitalize the conversation in our country around the topic of mental health.

Robin Williams’s death has received worldwide coverage and my condolences go out to his family and friends. He was a talented comedian and from what I can gather from media, just a good human.

Kevin Von Luft

It is always very difficult for the family members and friends to begin to understand what led someone like Robin Williams to get to the point where he thought ending his life was the only way to stop whatever pain or suffering he was feeling.

For many years I have been frustrated with the conversations about suicide and police officers. It has been a conversation that has been avoided, covered up and not taken head on for too long.

Many working police officers have had their life touched in some way by a suicide of another officer. Whether it is a direct co-worker or an acquaintance, the degrees of separation are small. I was personally affected a couple years ago when I learned that an ex-coworker had taken his own life.

Here is the truth in statistics. In 2012 the FBI reported that 127 officers were killed in the line of duty. This was a combination of assaults, car accidents, and other accidental deaths. This is the number that is all over the web when you search for this statistic.

There is no mention of officers who took their own life on these statistical reports; I have never seen it included. The leading number found published by websites that are dedicated to suicide prevention in law enforcement say 126 officers committed suicide in 2012.

So let’s be clear, just as many officers took their own life in 2012 as were killed in job related duties.

This is the number that is not talked about in law enforcement circles. There is also evidence to support that the number of officers who commit suicide is much higher, even double because of reporting errors or lack of willingness to admit what happened. In my opinion, as a society we are afraid of the topic.

Earlier this year, I heard of an officer who died from an overdose of alcohol and drugs. He was recently diagnosed with cancer and his death was classified as accidental. And there is no way to ever know if his overdose was intentional. Either way, he was obviously suffering and needed help. My heart goes out to his family.

Many, if not all of those suicides were entirely preventable. The reasons why they were not prevented are very complex and I do not want to discount or minimize what those officers were going through.

However, if there was an honest conversation occurring about officers mental health and ability to readily access treatment, I truly feel we could get that number to zero very quickly.

We are doing more now than we ever have before with programs such as peer support, which give officers access to peers that have been trained in crisis communication and referral procedures, and partnerships with counseling centers, which allow officers to access therapist without approval or consequences from their employers.

This is a good start, but not enough. One of my professional goals in my counseling work is to get that number to zero in our local agencies. More education and discussion is needed in training courses, shift briefings, and with families, to recognize the signs of when you or a loved one is in crisis and where to get help.

If you are or know someone in need of immediate help please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK. If that person is a law enforcement officer please call 1-866-COP-2COP. For additional resources feel free to contact me at kevinvonluft@preparetochange.com.

Kevin Von Luft is a 16-year law enforcement officer in Orange County and also holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology. Kevin works with first responders and their families as a registered Marriage and Family Therapist at Prepare to Change in Tustin, CA. Kevin can be reached at kevinvonluft@preparetochange.com or www.kevinvonluft.com.

Photo courtesy of Jared Keener.