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Take Your Hand Off the Stove

September 1, 2021
Tony Montoya - SFPOA President

There’s a metaphor in the mental health community that likens the act of re-exposing yourself to trauma to putting your hand on a hot stove and leaving it there. How do you stop the pain and begin to heal? You take your hand off the stove.

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and unlike other “affinity” months dedicated to a topic, this issues truly affects every American in a deeply personal manner. For police officers and our families, the awareness of suicide and mental well-being seems to chase us through our careers and into retirement.

“Suicide should be pursued as relentlessly as any other cop killer; together, publicly and, with unabating courage,” said Karen Solomon, Co-Founder of Blue H.E.L.P, a non-profit dedicated to understanding and bringing awareness to mental health issues affecting law enforcement officers. I couldn’t agree more.

The data is exceptionally clear. Each one of us who chooses to enter a career of police work exponentially exposes themselves to greater risk of developing cumulative impacts from job-related trauma. Our exposure to “critical incidents” takes a long-term toll on our mental health. And by “critical incident” we do not mean only using your weapon in the line of duty. Rather it is the ongoing exposure to human despair we see on the job daily. It’s the little girl who was raped. The fatal drunk driving accident where the victims have horrific wounds. It’s the child abused by his “parents” who subject him to drugs, violence, and conditions of squalor. And yes, it’s the suicides we respond to. There’s more. You know there’s more.

Many of us think we have it under control. We’re professionals. We turn off that part of our emotions to make it through the call. We get the job done and then we go on to the next call. Right? Right.

In a prominent white paper on first responder mental health, one study found that on average, police officers witness 188 critical incidents during their careers. Consider this: PTSD and depression rates among police officers and firefighters is 5 times higher than the civilian population. This leads to considerably higher suicide rates, 18 firefighter suicides per 100,000, 17 police officer suicides per 100,000 versus 13/100,000 for civilians. And that only covers the suicides reported. To date, 90 U.S. law enforcement officers in 2021 committed suicide.

The cumulative impacts of these incidents quietly chase us down our entire careers. However, trauma doesn’t end when you trade a paycheck for a pension check. Blue H.E.L.P. found that 11% of all law enforcement suicides were retirees. Sixty percent of those suicides were retired less than three years prior to committing suicide.

Finally, the stigma of PTSD on the job is slowly eroding, which is leading us to have access to more data, to better understand and address these issues, but also to help more officers. The SFPOA is one of the organizations that has aggressively pushed to expand resources for officers in crisis and to help ensure the officer is not discriminated against if they seek help. We also made good progress in Sacramento with the passage of SB 542 in 2019 which created a presumption of PTSD as a work-related injury.

We have help. And I encourage every single SFPD officer who even thinks they might need help to reach out now to the SFPD Behavioral Science Unit at 415-837-0875 or 415-553-1071 after hours. Like many SFPOA members, I serve as a peer counselor and have spoken to countless officers who are either in full blown crisis or on the brink. Each and every time I consider it a blessing to try and get that officer on a path of getting help and healing. Every time.

The reality is, facing and slaying our own personal dragons can be much more scary than chasing down the gun toting felon fleeing arrest. We should all be supportive and give recognition to those who have the courage to reach out for help.

The alternative is a SFPD family overwhelmed by trauma and tragedy. Since the January 6, 2021 riot, the U.S. Capitol Police lost four active-duty officers to suicide. That’s out of a sworn staff of approximately 2,000 officers. One can only imagine what the impact that has had on the Capitol Police department.

The DOJ found that unlike the U.S. Military, which is the sole employer of all military veterans, “no agency exists to serve the unique health and wellness needs of law enforcement retirees.” In fact, there are over 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. Given this and the impact of job-related stress and trauma on officers, the US DOJ recommended to Congress to “encourage departments to allow retired law enforcement officers to make use of departmental peer support programs for a select period of time post-retirement or separation.” The DOJ also stated that “being able to access their agency’s wellness networks and services that helped them while they were on the job could be an important benefit to extend into the transition to retirement or second careers.”

It is the mission of Blue H.E.L.P. to reduce mental health stigma through education, advocate for benefits for those suffering from post-traumatic stress, acknowledge the service and sacrifice of law enforcement officers we lost to suicide, assist officers in their search for healing, and to bring awareness to suicide and mental health issues.

So as we raise awareness of suicide prevention this month, please do not lose sight of the impact close to home. We all go through life’s struggles, and we all have been exposed to the trauma of the job. Help is literally a phone call or a shoulder tap away. Take your hand off the stove and ask for help.