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Ending the epidemic of police suicides is up to us

Yellow police tape closes off a crime scene. Curtis Reisinger, PhD, calls for more action in decreasing police suicides.

Boosting mental wellness is a good step, but much more is needed to alter the pattern of police suicides

A married man with children, Kevin Preiss, 53, was just three days shy of his 25th anniversary as an officer in the New York City Police Department. He lived on Long Island and was making plans to retire next year, according to colleagues. But at 9:50 on a Wednesday night in June, he was found dead at his home with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head, the fourth NYPD officer to take his life in that month alone.

Faced with this grim statistic, Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill declared a mental health crisis. He wasn’t overreacting: As studies in New York and elsewhere show, more police officers die by suicide than are killed in the line of duty.

You would think that police officers, carefully selected and meticulously trained, would be less susceptible to mental health crises than the rest of the population. But as those of us who treat first responders know, that’s far from the case.

Police officers — like nurses and doctors and teachers — go into their line of work primarily because they find meaning in working with people. It’s easy to lose track of that fact when we see uniformed officers and observe their badges and guns, but at the heart of police work is constant contact with other human beings, an undertaking that can only be achieved by having and managing great empathy.

Sadly, when things go wrong, this empathy can turn from an asset to a liability. Police officers, we know from experience, often replay their most traumatic moments in their heads, asking themselves again and again what they might have done differently. They also identify strongly with the people they meet on the job and find themselves haunted by the suffering they’ve seen.

Until recently, however, officers seeking an outlet to talk about these challenging feelings had very little recourse. Because their work is highly demanding, and because officers sometimes have to make life-or-death decision at a moment’s notice, many departments have developed a culture of toughness that discourages open discussion of emotional challenges. This is not uncommon — we see similar attitudes among military personnel, say, or fire-fighters — but it is, thankfully, changing.

Improving the mental health of police officers

After Preiss took his life, the NYPD’s top brass reached out to other departments for advice. Shortly thereafter, the department announced a series of new steps designed to boost mental wellness, including enhancing the therapeutic services currently offered to officers and establishing peer-to-peer counseling at every single NYPD station and office.

This is a very good first step, but it is hardly enough. If we want to help and protect our officers, we need to better understand how the stress they experience on the job affects their mental health and ability to carry out their duties.

In recent years, for example, a host of academic studies have suggested that there’s a direct link between the stress officers experience and the likelihood of their using excessive force. You hardly have to be a psychiatrist to understand the logic of this proposition: A person who is involved in a traumatic event is more likely, when put in a difficult and risky situation, to miscalculate the threat he or she faces and overreact. To better understand this sensitive subject, and to come up with correlating policies, like mandatory rest periods for officers involved in stressful situations, the US Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice committed last year to a three-year study, in partnership with the University of Buffalo. It’s a good beginning, but more research is needed to study this sensitive but crucial subject.

As we head into an election year, let’s hope that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can agree to make the well-being of our police officers a priority, and pledge to fund the studies we need to help protect our first responders just as they protect us.

Curtis Reisinger, PhD, is chief of the Division of Psychiatry — Psychological Services at Long Island Jewish Medical Center and an assistant professor at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell.

This op-ed appeared in Crain's New York.