by Andy O’Hara California Highway Patrol (retired) The Badge of Life
For every police suicide, there are a thousand officers out there on the streets, working with undiagnosed PTSD.
The Badge of Life Police Mental Health Foundation is in its seventh year and many still don’t know quite what to make of us. A group of retired officers, clinicians and researchers, we question the “traditional” ways of doing things. We say things that the police establishment is reluctant to hear. We challenge their “comfort zone.”
For example, we suggest that police suicides are not the main problem everyone should be focusing on. Heresy! Instead we point out that, for every police suicide, there are a thousand officers out there on the streets, working with undiagnosed PTSD. Instead of trying to spot 150 potential suicides (out of almost a million police officers), we need to be working on programs to improve the mental health of ALL officers.
That, we say, is how we can ultimately impact the suicide issue in law enforcement.
Further, we point out that our current programs, safe and comfortable though they may be, are wasting money, time and lives. Telling officers that “It takes courage to ask for help” is too little, too late, because by the time they reach the point of needing it, too much damage has been done (and they often won’t hear the message). Instead, police departments need to begin taking care of their officers from the day they leave the academy, encouraging them to monitor and care for their mental health with as much vigor as they do their physical conditioning and prowess on the shooting range.
What does this mean? It means annual, voluntary (emphasis on voluntary) “mental health checks” with a therapist of their own choice to review the year, see how they’re doing, identify their strengths, and build on those strength so that when trauma and the chance of PTSD confront them, they’ll know what to do—right away. This is where suicide prevention really begins.
Police chiefs struggle with the suggestion that a well-rounded mental health program in their departments is worth the budget expense. They look at dollars—of course. With that in mind, we appeal to their pocketbooks. What is the financial cost, we ask, of having an officer gunned down on a traffic stop? It’s huge. Of the 65 officers murdered last year, we ask, how many of them might have been saved had they not been preoccupied by other stresses, by depression, by a substance abuse problem, a divorce or even PTSD? One? A half dozen? More, if they had had that extra second of reaction time?
We then ask police chiefs how much money they could save from an emotional wellness program that might reduce a great many other expensive problems facing them constantly: sick leave, vehicle accidents, lawsuits, complaints, grievances, work injuries, resignations, morale problems and much more.
These are simple concepts, and law enforcement is slow to change. Still, after years of pushing, we are beginning to see signs of movement. Increasing numbers of departments are coming to us, requesting our training materials and asking how they can implement such a program for their personnel. Fire departments are approaching us, as well—the concepts and practices are no different. Responders are beginning to realize that they can do more than just “survive” these toxic careers—they can take control of them. They can achieve and maintain a quality of life, on and off the job. They can prepare for the worst, be ready for it ahead of time, and not be devastated by it. More than anything, they can look forward to a full retirement that offers more than anxiety, hidden angers and nightmares.
It’s an exciting time, indeed. If you would like information on this simple, easy-to-implement program, visit our website and contact us. Everything we do is free. All our materials are yours for the asking.
It’s what we do.
About the Author: Andy O’Hara founded Badge of Life in 2007. He is currently head of research and development and the organization’s webmaster. A military veteran as well as a 24 year officer and sergeant of the California Highway Patrol, Andy knows the pain of law enforcement all too well–he retired with severe PTSD. While lecturing and teaching, he has worked extensively with traumatized emergency responders, authored two books and several journal-published studies, and produced numerous articles for the internet and print media on police mental health, the nature of post traumatic stress disorder the issue of law enforcement suicides. Andy continues to work with individual agencies in the development of new, improved programs for their personnel.