Reducing the Stigma Surrounding Mental Health
By Zach Lilly
When an emergency arises, society calls on first responders to step in and deal with situations that many citizens are not equipped to handle. As a result, officers frequently witness things that humans were never meant to encounter1 and that standardized training may not prepare them for.
Many of these professionals have dealt with the mental and emotional impacts of what they have endured with little guidance on how to process these feelings in a healthy way. They are reluctant to seek mental health care because they fear being viewed as weak or incapable of performing their duties.
Unfortunately, this stigma has kept officers from getting the assistance they need. Current data suggests that first responders are attempting and dying by suicide at a much higher rate than initially thought.
From 2017 to 2021, the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) program reported 511 officers were killed in the line of duty (270 feloniously and 241 accidentally).2
During the same 5-year span, First H.E.L.P. — a nonprofit that started collecting law enforcement suicide data in 2016 — reported 756 officer suicides.3 That number is nearly three times higher than that of feloniously killed officers.
Zach Lilly served as an FBI police officer and is currently a writer-editor with the bureau’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division in Clarksburg, West Virginia.
This data suggests that officers are more likely to kill themselves than to be killed in the line of duty. Suicide in the law enforcement community has become an epidemic, and these brave men and women need help.
As a result, in May 2020, Congress passed the Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection (LESDC) Act to generate an understanding of suicide in law enforcement and help prevent future deaths.
Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection
The LESDC Act directs the attorney general, acting through the FBI, to collect five key facts about each law enforcement suicide or attempt (if an agency reports it).
- Circumstances and events preceding the incident
- General location
- Officer’s demographic information
- Officer’s occupational category (e.g., criminal investigator, corrections officer, line of duty officer, 911 dispatch operator)
- Method used4
Because the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program has been an effective national data collection mechanism for more than nine decades, agency leaders tasked it with establishing a new program, aptly named the Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection (also shortened to LESDC).
On January 1, 2022, the FBI, through the LESDC, began collecting information from agencies about their officers who died by or attempted suicide on or after that date. The LESDC Act mandates that the FBI submit an annual report of the data gathered to Congress; the first was submitted for review in June 2022.5
According to the act, an incident may only be reported to the FBI by a law enforcement agency (either the late officer’s employer or the investigating agency). This reduces the chance of duplicate reports. The LESDC will follow the same protocol as other UCR data collection programs — agencies will submit data voluntarily unless otherwise mandated by state law, and the information will not directly identify the officers involved.
The LESDC Act has a broader definition for law enforcement officer6 and law enforcement agency7 than other UCR data collections. It will collect information regarding line of duty officers, along with investigators, corrections officers, and 911 dispatch operators.
These additional job categories are not often represented together, and information regarding the individuals’ struggles has not been readily available.8 The LESDC has the potential to provide a better picture of the mental health struggles and suicide rate throughout more of the law enforcement community.
Mental Health Stigma
An important step toward restoring mental health and well-being throughout law enforcement is collecting and publishing this data with the hope of reducing the stigma of seeking help.
In 2019, a public safety mental health pilot survey polled Virginia first responders to identify risk and protective factors related to mental health in their fields. A total of 4,871 respondents participated from 15 police departments, 6 fire and rescue departments, and 5 public safety communication centers.9
“Suicide in the law enforcement community has become an epidemic, and these brave men and women need help.”
The results were consistent across the board. First responders experienced declining mental health but were reluctant to seek professional help because they felt they were expected to be strong enough to withstand their job’s stressors.10 Those expectations may come from society, the agency, themselves, or some combination of the three. Whatever their sources, these pressures stand between many first responders and the assistance they need.
Some departments already offer mental health programs to their employees, but many officers are too embarrassed to request the assistance. They have been conditioned to think a mental health issue is a character flaw,11 which leads them to fear they will be ostracized for soliciting help.
Statistically, 1 in 5 Americans struggles with mental health.12 Considering the situations law enforcement personnel commonly deal with, it is no surprise they sometimes fall into that group. The 2019 survey determined that nearly 8% of its participants admitted to recent thoughts of suicide.13
Leaders in the law enforcement community believe the LESDC can be a vital tool in eliminating the stigma that keeps first responders from seeking mental help. As agencies contribute data to the LESDC and the results are published, these professionals can be encouraged that the feelings they experience are common and should no longer be perceived as a weakness.
If those struggling with their mental health realize they are not alone, perhaps they will more readily reach out for help and get treatment. In addition, if LESDC data gains the attention of leaders from across the country, more training and wellness programs could become available.14
One of the most effective steps an agency can take to reduce the stigma is to offer prevention and wellness programs that encourage officers to speak out about their mental health issues. Taking advantage of existing programs and developing new ones is a great start,15 but funding is an issue for many departments. As such, the data that will be presented to legislators through the LESDC has the potential to justify the cost of the training16 and generate funding for mental health resources.
“The LESDC has the potential to provide a better picture of the mental health struggles and suicide rate throughout more of the law enforcement community.”
Some agency leaders see suicide among their ranks as a failure on their part,17 and the last thing they want to do is report it to another department. Sadly, this has led to a lack of reporting. Instead, agencies need to see the importance and potential positive impact of disclosing these tragic incidents. If departments are transparent and report suicides or attempted suicides to the LESDC, the nation will see the extent of the problem. Further, other struggling officers will seek the mental health assistance they need.
Society has relied on first responders for many years. It is time for them to have a support system of their own.
The purpose of the Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection Act is “to prevent future law enforcement suicides and promote the understanding of suicide in law enforcement.”18 Prevention largely falls on legislators to fund the wellness and mental health programs that will make lifesaving differences for these heroes for years to come. The other component, understanding suicide, mostly depends on departments.
Efforts should be done at the agency level to confront the issue, and incident data must be submitted for long-term assistance to materialize. Working together, change is possible and beneficial to the law enforcement community.
Incidents may be reported through the LESDC application, located in the Law Enforcement Enterprise Portal (LEEP). If an agency does not have a LEEP account, it may apply for one by going to https://www.cjis.gov and completing the online application. For more information about the LESDC, call 304-625-5370 or email LESDC@fbi.gov.
“Leaders in the law enforcement community believe the LESDC can be a vital tool in eliminating the stigma that keeps first responders from seeking mental help.”
Mr. Lilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 J.D. Younger, interview by Mike Riley, Tara Perine, and Zach Lilly, Clarksburg, WV, January 14, 2022.
2 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Crime Data Explorer,” accessed April 25, 2023, https://cde.ucr.cjis.gov/LATEST/webapp/#/pages/le/leoka.
3 Blue H.E.L.P., “Officer Suicide Statistics,” accessed June 17, 2022, https://bluehelp.org/the-numbers/.
4 Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection Act, Public Law 116-143, 116th Cong. (June 16, 2020), https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/2746/text?overview=closed.
6 “[T]he term ‘law enforcement officer’ means any current or former officer (including a correctional officer), agent, or employee of the United States, a State, Indian Tribe, or a political subdivision of a State authorized by law to engage in or supervise the prevention, detection, investigation, or prosecution of any violation of the criminal laws of the United States, a State, Indian Tribe, or a political subdivision of a State. … ” Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection Act.
7 “[T]he term ‘law enforcement agency’ means a Federal, State, Tribal, or local agency engaged in the prevention, detection, or investigation, prosecution, or adjudication of any violation of the criminal laws of the United States, a State, Tribal, or a political subdivision of a State. … ” Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection Act.
8 David Mulholland, interview by Michael Riley, Tara Perine, and Zach Lilly, Clarksburg, WV, January 14, 2022.
9 Fairfax County Police Department and U.S. Marshals Service, 2019 Virginia Public Safety Mental Health Pilot Survey, Jaysyn Carson et al. (Fairfax, VA, 2019).
10 Justin Jouvenal, “New Survey Shows Heavy Psychological Toll for Virginia’s First Responders,” Washington Post, September 10, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/new-survey-shows-heavy-psychological-toll-for-vas-first-responders/2019/09/09/636df99e-d323-11e9-9610-fb56c5522e1c_story.html.
11 J.D. Younger, interview.
12 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Mental Health, “Mental Illness,” accessed June 17, 2022, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.
14 Monroe Hudson, interview by Michael Riley, Tara Perine, and McKenna Polen, Clarksburg, WV, January 20, 2022.
16 David Mulholland, interview.
17 J.D. Younger, interview.