Law enforcement executives have heard the numbers. The industry is experiencing a growing crisis, and measures are being taken across the country, even the world, to combat a rising rate of suicide within the ranks. Awareness training, outreach programs, prevention initiatives, and myriad other efforts are being developed to address this expanding wave of tragedy. Those who have served our communities while prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice each day now are ending their own lives after silently suffering. Unprepared, we scramble to find answers through the implementation of something, anything that can stem the tide.
Researching the topic of law enforcement suicide returns a tidal wave of articles and other publications that offer suggestions and possible solutions. However, the industry is slow to make comparisons with other professions. We frequently hear comments to the effect of “cops are unique” and “these concepts don’t apply to law enforcement.” Industry professionals follow a long-standing tradition of placing our brothers and sisters on an island of sorts that, in essence, contributes to the isolation of those who suffer from emotional health issues. This practice further can exacerbate the struggle and potentially contribute to the rise in suicide rates.
It is impossible to focus on all of the many components of this issue, so I will attempt to make a useful comparison for those who retired from law enforcement and lost a sense of purpose. An article by Malcolm Lemmons titled “How Athletes Can Deal with Depression in Life After Sports” addresses emotions that those retiring from our police departments can identify with.1 Athletes, like police officers, normally have dedicated their lives to a single purpose. This requires constant training, education, and commitment to something that is more than a job. It is a way of life, an identity. Few industries can claim this comparison.
Police officers commonly stay in the same location from the time they are hired until they retire. Through this shared experience of continuity and uniquely homogenous career pursuits, officers also have a heightened sense of purpose. Of course, the purpose of an athlete cannot be compared with that of an officer who takes an oath to protect others. However, common emotions exist in both professions surrounding individuals arriving at the end of their life pursuits. And, for the purpose of understanding loss, officers and athletes both have a distinct end and associated crisis of identity. We take for granted that after 20-plus years of fulfilling the promise of protect and serve we always will maintain that commitment. But, when the platform to deliver changes, we have a sense of loss that can be extreme.
Professional athletes commit their entire life to one end—attaining perfection on the field of play. From the time they could throw a ball, catch a pass, hit a baseball, or score a goal, they have had singular ambitions. When that abruptly ends through, for instance, injury, retirement, or failure to perform, emotional ramifications can be severe. In turn, retirement from a law enforcement position results in a similar loss of purpose and identity. Why do retired officers frequently die of “natural causes” within 5 years? Why do retired officers commit suicide at a rate substantially higher than people retiring from other professions? It is the loss of purpose.
Lemmons provided a simple guideline that certainly is applicable for both athletes and law enforcement.
- Refind your purpose. Do not let that flame of service extinguish. Volunteer, run for local office, serve on community boards, or discover a path that allows you to engage those skills learned over the last decades.
- Set goals and stay productive. Becoming sedentary or establishing a routine without purpose can destroy a person.
- Pick up your “sport” again. If you have not seen the advertisements for security and law enforcement consultants on social media, you are not subscribing to social media. Take a page from those books. Those skill sets remain valuable, and there is a market for educating others.2
In a time when we are becoming sensitive—almost hypersensitive—to the emotional well-being of the law enforcement workforce, we need to recognize cause and effect, as well as the implementation of solutions. “It is okay to not be okay....”3 This statement by Lemmons applies across society, regardless of what you do for a living. But, for those who continue to serve, take care of yourselves and each other.
"Those who have served our communities while prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice each day now are ending their own lives after silently suffering."
Supervisory Special Agent Chris Anglin, an instructor in the Leadership Programs and Instruction Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 “How Athletes Can Deal with Depression in Life After Sports,” Malcolm Lemmons, accessed August 18, 2020, https://malcolmlemmons.com/how-athletes-can-deal-with-depression-in-life-after-sports/.