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BREAKING THE STIGMA: Suicide is second leading cause of death within law enforcement

Published: Jan. 6, 2022 at 7:17 PM CST
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ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) – While navigating life in a pandemic, another crisis is starting to bear its teeth. In 2021, suicide was determined to be the second leading cause of death in law enforcement.

Blue Help is an organization working to honor the service of law enforcement officers who died by suicide. Last year, suicide claimed the lives of 150 officers across the nation. It’s not the only alarming statistic though. According to the CDC, police are 54 percent more likely to commit suicide.

“I don’t know if it has never not been going on,” Invisible Wounds Project founder Russ Hanes said. “But now, we are just actually looking at it and starting to realize as a society the issue with it.”

Invisible Wounds Project is a Minnesota-based non-profit that offers free services to first responders and their families dealing with mental health, PTSD, and suicide. Founder, Hanes, knows the struggle first hand after working as a cop and 911 dispatcher for 17 years. He believes the suicide statistic could be much higher due to lack of reporting and the stigma that surrounds mental health.

“Accepting that there are mental health issues, and that it’s normal. Police officers, firefighters, first responders, frontline people. Nobody is bulletproof or immune. There’s no training or experience that’s going to eliminate exposure to these things,” Hanes said.

Advocates acknowledge that the stigma runs deeper within the law enforcement community. According to data Hanes has collected, one in four first responders struggles with PTSD.

“There’s a huge issue with, ‘Just ignore it. Suck it up. You’re fine. Move on. You’re weak.’ There’s a huge issue with that,” he said. “Some of that is brought on by partners. Brought on by the traditions of the positions. There’s so many that are afraid to speak up.”

It’s a conversation that Dodge County Sheriff Scott Rose has helped start in his own department.

“With our agency, we started a couple of different programs. A peer support program, where we have peer support teams who are trained and there to help talk to staff if they are struggling. Again, it’s creating that environment where it’s okay not to be okay,” Rose said.

Rose also opens the conversation in his Officer Down Memorial Podcast, honoring fallen officers. Most recently featuring Sergeant Cory Slifko, who died in Nov. 2019. Slifko is survived by a wife and two children, who work closely with IWP to help other officers and families who are struggling.

“It really comes down to talking about things and being open and honest,” Hanes said.

“Everybody handles it in different ways,” Rose said. “But at some point everybody needs to talk to someone. We just need to make sure we have that support.”

Rose encourages any police officer who doesn’t have a program within their own department, to establish one, because it’s needed. Invisible Wounds Project is available to anyone needing help any time of day, free of charge.

“If you are in the position where you feel like its just kicking you, and you need to do something. Call IWP. It’s just a great organization. Great people who are experienced and have been where you’ve been,” Rose said.

It’s a conversation that was once silenced in the first responder realm. But also one that will hopefully help turn negative statistics around.

“Just know that even if you don’t have programs put together in your agency, there’s still help out there,” Rose said.

You are not alone. Help is available.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

Invisible Wounds Project: 1-855-435-7497

Copline: 1-800-267-5463

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