Release Date: October 13, 2023
BUFFALO, N.Y. – John Violanti, PhD, calls it “the silent culture” in law enforcement. It’s the expectation among many officers that they try to manage their mental health problems themselves, alone, rather than talking about their struggles and seeking professional help.
While mental health continues to be a major public health concern, the issue hits members of law enforcement — broadly defined as police and correctional officers, dispatchers, and judicial employees — especially hard for a variety of reasons, including the stressful nature of the work and what officers see and deal with on a daily basis, along with ever-changing work schedules and the reliance on internalizing one’s mental health struggles.
In fact, a significantly higher proportion of deaths from suicide occur among law enforcement personnel than other professions, Violanti’s previous research has shown.
Earlier this year, Violanti, a research professor of epidemiology and environmental health in the University at Buffalo’s School of Public Health and Health Professions and retired member of the New York State Police, served on a planning committee of experts convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
They were tasked with examining approaches for improving the measurement of death by suicide in the law enforcement occupation. Another group, the National Committee on Statistics, worked in tandem with the planning committee. Together, the two groups published two workshops on military and police suicide measurement.
“Considering recent issues with mental health in the U.S. and the increased risk of suicide among those who work in law enforcement and in the military, it became necessary to assess the scope of this public health problem among first responders,” Violanti says.
Currently, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are the two federal agencies that measure suicide among members of law enforcement using a variety of data collection methods.
“Suicide in law enforcement has been the subject of controversy concerning a more accurate measure of both the number and calculated risk of suicide in this population. This became necessary to help develop prevention measures,” Violanti adds.
Toward that end, the workshops sought to bring together experts to review the existing data collections’ scope, elements and coverage in order to identify ways to improve the measurement of law enforcement suicide in the United States. The committee defined the specific topics to be addressed, developed the agenda, and invited speakers and other participants. Proceedings of the workshops were then prepared by the National Academies and distributed to the public.
Violanti emphasized that preventing suicide among law enforcement personnel is the No. 1 objective, and that it’s important to “always remember that families and friends who lose someone to suicide are not so much concerned about ‘epidemiology or surveillance’” but more about their loss of a loved one, friend, or coworker.
In the planning committee workshop, Violanti noted the need for the evaluation of suicide prevention in police work and described an approach the U.S. Air Force took that leveraged the Air Force community — including commanders, chaplains, families and airmen/women — in prevention efforts, training them to recognize signs of suicide. The effort helped significantly reduce the rate of suicide in the Air Force.
“This workshop was an important step in assessing a more accurate measure of law enforcement suicide, assessing the scope of the problems, and building suicide prevention strategies for the future,” Violanti says.