According to Badge of Life, a police suicide prevention program, 108 Law Enforcement Officers took their own lives in 2016. While this does show a decline, this may not be all-inclusive, nor does it reflect the larger population of officers struggling from depression or PTSD.
As part of an ongoing series about mental health, mental resilience, suicide prevention, and suicide postvention among law enforcement and first responders, we sat down with 1st Alliance founder, Karen Solomon to learn more about how they help all first responders when they need it most.
(This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Share with us a bit about your organization, 1st Alliance.
Karen Solomon: 1st Alliance has a short but long history. In 2014, I decided to try my hand at writing a blog, I then wrote a book, wrote another book, built a database, co-founded 1st Alliance and now have formed Honor Them.
I began by writing about people who had unique struggles in their life – illnesses, traumatic events, significant contributions to the community. One subject, Steve Hough, was an officer who had been shot in the face, I wrote about his partner, Jeff McGill, and their families.
While I was in the middle of the 8-part series, Ferguson happened, so I wrote my first book, Hearts Beneath the Badge. Officers around the country began contacting me with stories, so I wrote The Price They Pay.
During this process, I realized that too many officers don’t know where to get help when they need it so I began compiling resources and found a developer who was willing to help me create a searchable database www.1stHelp.net.
Steve, Jeff and I decided to form an organization that would assist all first responders in finding help. Our goal was to create a central place to find help, we weren’t out to replace anyone, or provide the help, simply point them in the right direction.
Over the last 2 years, I’ve spent a lot of time speaking to organizations, providers, and first responders and realized there is a huge gap where emotional health is concerned; there is also a terrible stigma when it comes to first responders needing emotional assistance. After a lot of soul-searching and thoughtful listening, we’ve evolved into Honor Them.
In partnership with LawOfficer.com, we are building a website that will reduce mental health stigmas through education, advocate for benefits for those suffering from PTSI, acknowledge the service and sacrifice of first responders who we lost to suicide, assist officers in their search for healing, and to bring awareness to first responder suicide and mental health issues. It seems a bit of a complicated history but one thing just flowed into another until we’ve landed where we are supposed to be, and I firmly believe that is with our Honor Them endeavor.
JCH: “Suicide Prevention among First Responders” is an unusual topic area – one most people wouldn’t think about. What drew you to this cause?
Karen: While writing The Price They Pay, I found that there is a lot of trauma among first responders, both cumulative and situational. Too many of these first responders get depressed and rather than seek help, they can easily turn to self-destructive behavior and with that comes depression and sometimes, suicide. To be honest, I was really taken aback by many of the stories, I was heartbroken to hear that after some of the incidents they responded to, they were sent right back on the street.
The breaking point for me was a story in the “Steven” chapter of The Price They Pay; it was a horrific fire and upon hearing about it, I thought I was done. That I couldn’t hear anymore. It was at that time I realized that if they could keep going back out on the road, I could keep listening and try to figure out a way to help.
What I heard was that the physically and emotionally injured officers are the most neglected, they get the least amount of time, benefits and compassion. They are but a blip on the screen at the time of the incident but that is a lack of serious follow-up, honoring of their sacrifices and attention to their families. I just felt like there was a void and I wanted to help fill it.
Over time, I found Wounded Officers Initiative and I felt like they were doing for the wounded what I’d like to do. Again, it just happened naturally, since I believe that they have got the physically injured covered and will grow into a great organization, I still saw a gap with the emotionally injured.
Having battled with the emotional demons myself, it became very personal. I want them to be seen and heard without being judged. I knew that organizations had sporadically collected suicide data, but I felt that wasn’t enough. We need to collect the data every year, get to the root cause, open people’s minds so that the first responders can get help and, support the families of those we lose. I’m not sure I was drawn to the cause so much as the cause drew me to it.
JCH: How big is the problem of suicide among first responders and police officers? Why is it such a hidden challenge?
Karen: That is such a hard question to answer because we aren’t paying attention to it. We don’t collect the data. We collect data of injured and killed on duty, we collect data of those who suffer heart attacks, but we sweep the suicides under the rug both before and after they happen.
Hidden challenge? It’s hidden because we choose to hide it.
Everyone talks about how law enforcement and others are “held to a higher standard,” that they’re supposed to control their emotions and they are supposed to be the ones to walk into hell and set it all up right for the victims, their families and the onlookers. Who sets things up right for them?!
“We need to collect the data every year,
get to the root cause,
open people’s minds so that the first responders can get help,
and support the families of those we lose.”
Karen Solomon, 1st Alliance.org
It’s hidden because we’ve created this culture where they are supposed to be tough. And tough guys/girls don’t cry. Newsflash, they do. You just don’t see it. How can we, with a straight face, provide help for people who witness the same things that first responders do and not provide the same help for the first responders? Think about the hypocrisy of that. If I witness a violent crime, I am expected to have emotional trauma. The first responder who comforts the families, cleans up the body parts from the streets, follows up through the aftermath, listens to scream after scream isn’t expected to have emotional trauma? Compile that with the scrutiny of the public and the politicians.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that not every first responder sees horror daily, some may be lucky enough not to see it at all, but it only takes one incident, one call. Or 20 years of calls, shift work, frustration with the legal system and the perverse side of humanity. It’s a hidden challenge because society is loathe to recognize depression and suicide among the general population, imagine what it would take to recognize it among those we “hold to a higher standard”?
“More cops die of suicide
than are killed by gunfire
and traffic accidents combined.”
Badge of Life, 2016 Study
JCH: A large number of our readers and subscribers are in law enforcement, but we have representation from all parts of the justice arena. How can they become more aware of, and assist others who might be struggling?
Karen: The most important thing they can do is get help when they need it. They must also recognize when others are struggling, share their stories and push for their departments to develop policies that protect first responders when they need help. We cannot continue to penalize them when they need help.
People still use the term “rubber gun squad” and it’s just not funny. They believe that if they admit they need emotional help, or they seek it, they will be put on the “rubber gun squad.” In too many cases, this is true.
We form these CIT teams so that the police can help people with their problems and help them become fully functioning members of society again, where’s the CIT team to help our first responders and allow them to become fully functioning members of their teams? It’s not a death sentence, it’s an injury. It can be treated and they can move forward. Some may not be able to continue in law enforcement, but so many just need a little help learning to cope with the side effects of their careers.
There are organizations that can teach departments what they need to know, some cost money, others are free. Make room in your training budget for tactical training for the mind, not just for the body. If we can train officers to recognize the emotional problems and seek help before they start, we won’t have to worry about “rubber gun squads.”
If you or someone you know is feeling overwhelmed, know you are not alone, there are many resources to help. Please consider:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255)
or First Alliance.org to find assistance near you.