Suicide among America’s men and women in law enforcement remains a tragic epidemic. The number of self-inflicted casualties among police officers has continued to climb since the 1980s, according to the research.
What explains this alarming trend, and how do we reverse it? A thoughtful answer to this question is admittedly far too complex for the scope of one short article. From the perspective of mental health, though, there is at least one critical way to spare many more lives from suicide: early intervention for mental health disorders like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A real-life example of the impact of early intervention
As Director of Clinical Services at FHE Health, a Florida-based behavioral provider, Dr. Beau Nelson, DBH, LCSW, speaks from firsthand experience about the impact of early intervention for the men and women who come through FHE’s Shatterproof, a program for first responders. As illustration, he shared the experience of an officer whom he called “Pete.”
Pete had served on the police force for several years before he began to experience symptoms of PTSD and depression. First, there were the flashbacks. Soon there was the insomnia. He began to feel depressed and would call in sick because he didn’t want to go to work. By this time, a lack of motivation to get out of bed — or even to go on living — had set in.
Pete’s partner grew concerned and recommended he get help. He knew Pete had concerns about job security if he went to treatment, so he referred Pete to a specialized treatment program for cops and first responders at the Florida-based FHE Health facility, which provides job-protected treatment for PTSD, depression, addiction and other mental health needs.
By the time he entered rehab, Pete knew his symptoms would only escalate and could lead to suicide, if left untreated. He experienced some comfort knowing he would be surrounded by other peers struggling with similar challenges. (Depression and PTSD occur at significantly higher rates among police officers, because of the firsthand and secondary traumatic stress they experience.)
During rehab, Pete received a comprehensive treatment plan that combined medication with behavioral and other evidence-based interventions. He took part in intensive therapies with other first responders and received neuro-rehabilitative treatments that retrained and rewired the areas of his brain damaged by trauma. Pete also learned some effective stress coping skills and health and wellness strategies for life after rehab.
Within weeks, his symptoms had subsided greatly, and he was ready to return to work, his family and the community, using the tools he had received in treatment.
What is early intervention and why does it matter?
“Early intervention” refers to any initiative to get psychiatric and clinical help before the long-term mental, emotional and neurological damage of an untreated mental health disorder sets in.
One of the grim lessons of rising suicide rates among police officers and the larger population is that these conditions don’t go away on their own. Their hiddenness doesn’t make them any less real or dangerous. Like other chronic medical issues that, when ignored or untreated, become life-threatening, a mental health disorder can strike down even the strongest and sharpest members of society.
But a mental illness doesn’t have to follow this tragic course. New and ongoing advances in medical and behavioral science are restoring mental health for people with even more serious mental illnesses. And, in some cases, early intervention can ensure prevention. For example, the Institute of Medicine Committee on the Prevention of Mental Disorders has said that depression, a leading cause of both suicide and disability worldwide, is “the most preventable disorder.”
“Early intervention for depression, PTSD or problematic use of substances makes a difference in mitigating the consequences that come from these disabling conditions,” Dr. Nelson says. “Early intervention also allows the patient to be more able to engage in receiving help, make healthy changes, and get the support to prevent catastrophic problems, including loss of life.”
Intervene at the first signs of a problem
The takeaway: At the earliest signs and symptoms of a mental health or addiction problem, seek help immediately. Taking this initiative can be harder for public servants, who view themselves as helpers, as opposed to those who need help. They need to know that early intervention is one of the best ways to continue to help their family and community.
“Do not be afraid to ask for help,” Dr. Nelson says. “We need a helping hand when we are sinking into a hole. Don’t try and do it alone. There are resources and people who care, and you will thank yourself when you feel better.”