Suicide rate higher among cops
As the Carbon County community mourns the loss of sheriff's deputy and police officer David Midas, who took his life on Friday night, suicide prevention professionals speak out.
"Suicide among those serving in law enforcement happens about every 17 hours, and the rate among firefighters is sharply increasing," says Robert Michaels, CEO/Chaplain of Serve & Protect, a law enforcement and emergency services support organization. Serve & Protect operates a crisis hot line, has 3,200 chaplains, and a national network of trauma therapists.
Last year, 126 police officers ended their own lives, according to data released in August by a national study of police suicides performed by the Badge of Life, a Connecticut-based website run by active and retired police officers, medical professionals and family members of suicide victims.
The good news is that that's down from 143 in 2009, the latest previous count.
According to Badge of Life, police officers commit suicide at a higher rate than those in other occupations, with the exception of military personnel.
"Suicides can happen in any profession, but they occur 1.5 times more frequently in law enforcement compared to the general population," psychiatric nurse Pamela Kulbarsh wrote in an Oct. 9 article for Officer.com.
"Quite truthfully, the actual rate is probably higher as law enforcement suicides are more likely to be underreported or misclassified as accidental deaths. This misclassification usually occurs to protect the family, other survivors, or the agency from the stigma of suicide," she wrote.
For police and emergency responders, a "primary issue is what they see and experience on the job. There is an emotional toll for the stress, the impact of seeing human bodies in all manner of brokenness and carnage, dealing with the criminal element constantly, the imminent danger that is increasingly present from those who commit the crimes, and personal issues, like marital stress, financial hardship, emotional numbing, and uncertainty," Michaels says.
Those who knew Midas were left stunned and baffled. Here was a man who appeared engaged with life. Married for seven years, he and his wife Julie have two young sons, and were eagerly awaiting the arrival of a third, due in December. Midas was known for his love of polka music, worked part-time as a police officer in Lansford and Summit Hill, taught Drug Abuse Resistance Education classes at local elementary schools, and gave safety programs to local groups.
Why he held a co-worker at gunpoint, drove him from Lansford to nearby Jim Thorpe, and then shot himself on a busy street, is a question that may never be answered.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder factors prominently in many police and emergency responder suicides.
"PTSD symptoms are prevalent in about 85 percent of first responders. To survive, there is a necessary emotional; disconnect. We simply have to look at the carnage as evidence, or just part of the job. Not all are effected the same way. The defense mechanism I call the cast iron shield over the heart, protecting them so they can do their job. However, that emotional numbing that protects on the job is a killer at home. Seventy-five percent of officers and 85 percent of firefighters are divorced, at least once," said Serve & Protect's Michaels.
In recent years, officials have begun to better understand how the relentless stress of policing can accumulate until it reaches crushing proportions and how to lighten the load.
Locally, the Eastern PA EMS Council offers a Critical Incident Stress Management program. The program is aimed at reducing stress overload on police and emergency responders by providing support and counseling.
The Municipal Police Officers Education and Training Commission expects to propose resiliency training for police officers beginning in 2015. The training would
"We're trying to make sure officers can bounce back from stressful incidents," said Rudy Grubesky, MPOETC's director of training and curriculum development.
Police training specialist Bill Kaiser said the training would help "inoculate" officers against the effects of traumatic stress. Although he would not specifically address Midas' death, he said that coworkers should seek counseling following the traumatic death of an officer.
Police training specialist Terry Leahy coordinated a 2009 stress management training course for MPOETC. That course, he said, included helping officers know they are not alone, and that they cannot allow stress to overwhelm them.
"It's a macho profession, they tend to think they don't have a problem," he said.
Stress overload can surface as poor concentration, memory problems, poor attention span, difficulties with calculations, difficulty making decisions, slowed problem solving, loss of emotional control, grief, depression, anxiety, fear, guilt and feeling lost or overwhelmed. Physical symptoms of too much stress can include muscle tremors, chest pain, gastrointestinal distress, difficulty breathing, headaches and high blood pressure.
Signs of stress overload can also include excessive silence, sleep disturbance, unusual behaviors, changes in eating habits, withdrawal from contact and changes in work habits.
Where to get help
Police under pressure have lifelines to call to receive confidential help.
• Suicide Prevention: 1-800-273-8255. This service can immediately link a caller seeking help to a trained counselor closest to the caller's geographic location, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
• The Law Enforcement Peer Support Network hot line: 888-91-LEPSN (888-915-3776)
• Protect and Serve hot line: 615-373-8000