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More police officers died by suicides than on duty in 2019, advocacy group says

Blue H.E.L.P. (Facebook)

More police officers died by suicide than in the line of duty in 2019, and the number of reported police suicides rose for the fourth consecutive year, according to data from Blue H.E.L.P., a mental health advocacy group for police and their families.

In 2019, 228 police officers died by suicide, and 132 were killed in the line of duty. In comparison with 2018, duty deaths for police officers decreased 20 percent while suicides increased 35 percent, according to Blue H.E.L.P., which says it is the only group in the country tracking law enforcement suicides.

Florida had the fourth-most officer suicides in 2019. The state has the same ranking in total officer suicides since 2016, Blue H.E.L.P. reported.

Blue H.E.L.P. has reported two suicides in 2020 already.

Neither the Orange County Sheriff’s Office nor the Orlando Police Department has had any officer suicides in recent years, but both agencies have programs in place to highlight mental health awareness.

Orange County Sheriff John Mina said suicides by law enforcement officers have been “swept under the rug for many, many years.”

As part of an awareness campaign, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office released a video in December encouraging deputies to reach out if they need mental health assistance with the slogan, “It’s OK to not be OK.” In the video, Mina said seeking help would not affect officers’ careers.

“I tell deputies all the time, ‘I would think even more highly of you if you recognize that you’re having an issue,’’ he told the Sentinel.

The campaigns are designed to make deputies aware of mental health resources and encourage them to use them, Mina said.

“[The messaging says,] ‘We know this is a difficult job, we know you see a lot of things that our residents don’t see every day and it’s OK to get help,’” he said.

Doug Wyllie, media relations adviser for Blue H.E.L.P., said the data on officer suicides is aggregated from a number of sources, including law enforcement agencies, news reports and families of fallen officers. Death reports are verified with secondary sources, he said.

While the data seems to suggest police suicides are becoming more frequent, Blue H.E.L.P. cautions against drawing that conclusion. The higher numbers could be due to the way suicides are reported or an increased societal willingness to talk about an issue previously considered taboo.

“We can’t be sure that suicides are on the rise or if they are being reported more accurately,” said Blue H.E.L.P. co-founder Karen Solomon in a written statement.

Suicides have long gone under-reported or been miscategorized in the media as accidents, Wyllie said. But officer suicides also seem to be happening more publicly and visibly, he said.

In 2019, Blue H.E.L.P. collected more data than in previous years, which could contribute toward the perceived increase in suicides, said Steve Hough, another co-founder of the organization.

“[This indicates] families, friends, and co-workers are willing to move beyond the stigma of suicide and mental health to provide us data which may help others in the future,” Hough said in a written statement.

Blue H.E.L.P. has been collecting data on law enforcement suicides for over four years, but the organization has not interpreted the data to identify specific trends yet, Wyllie said. It aims to collect more data before it does so.

The Orange Sheriff’s Office has an employee assistance program that connects all employees to counseling through an anonymous call line and ensures employee have access to mental health care providers, Mina said. Additionally, employees have successfully sought treatment through UCF RESTORES, a clinic that treats active duty and retired military, first responders and trauma survivors.

While these services are anonymous, Mina said supervisors can order a deputy to undergo counseling and a duty fitness review if the deputy seems to be struggling at work.

“We don’t want it to get to that point,” he said. “If you’re feeling like you’re struggling with post-traumatic stress or anything else — it could be your marriage, it could be financial difficulties — we want you to reach out anonymously before it gets to the point where it’s affecting your work.”

After facing particularly traumatic situations, deputies are required to go through mandatory counseling, Mina said.

“If they’re involved in a life-and-death situation, if they’re shot at, if they have to use their weapon in a deadly force situation, we send them for a mandatory referral, we call it, and they won’t be released back to duty until they get that referral,” he said. “In most cases, they’re able to go to one session, sometimes two, and they’re cleared by the counselor and put back on the streets.”

Though OPD does not have a public mental health campaign like that of the Sheriff’s Office, spokesman Sgt. David Baker said officers are regularly informed of the importance of mental health awareness.

In 2018, all sworn police officers took an eight-hour course called Mental Health First Aid, which gave them insight into how to handle mental health issues they encounter on the job and to recognize people struggling within the department, he said.

“What Mental Health First Aid is designed to do is help you recognize the signs and symptoms of different types of mental illnesses or mental health concerns, and also give you the ability to refer somebody to the right resources,” Baker said.

Some officers have also gone through Crisis Intervention Team training, which instructs them how to assist civilians going through mental health crises. Baker said the material officers learn through the course can also be applicable to officers and their coworkers.

At OPD, the Employee Assistance Program gives officers free, confidential access to mental health professionals, and the Critical Incident Stress Management team is available to counsel officers after stressful or traumatic incidents, he said.

Baker said he has noticed younger officers are more likely to reach out for assistance than veterans, due to generational differences in attitudes toward mental health.

“The general population, over the past decade or so, has come around with the kind of understanding that mental health issues isn’t something necessarily that has to be stigmatized,” he said.

This attitude toward mental health has made its way into the police department, albeit at a slower pace than it has reached the general population, Baker said. Programs like the Mental Health First Aid class are key to destigmatizing mental health concerns, he said.

“[We teach officers] there’s no difference between having a mental health issue and any other health issue that you might be going through,” he said. “There’s no stigma that should coincide with that. You should feel at ease if you’re going to get help.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or ideations, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text CONNECT to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.


© 2020 The Orlando Sentinel