Police suicide, a silenced reality

The ARP union has drawn up a Suicide Prevention Plan, the first to be carried out in this body, even though the number of deaths is nine times the average 

According to a report by the United Nations Health Agency, every 40 seconds, a person in the world commits suicide. The number of suicides has not stopped growing in recent years and, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates, there will be more than 1.5 million deaths from this cause by 2020.

In Spain, the same trend can be seen. What is more, in 2008 the number of suicides already exceeded the number of deaths in road accidents.

Although this is a reality that affects the entire population, groups such as the police and the Guardia Civil are significantly affected. In these bodies, the deaths are far above average.

“The police suicide rate is nine times higher than that of the Spanish population,” says María Jesús Espiño, inspector and author of a study on suicide in the police forces, who warns that it is difficult to analyse because there is no record of it. Nevertheless, these are levels classified by the WHO as “very high”, she points out.

But while at Benemérita up to three prevention plans have already been drawn up and some psychologists specialise in suicidal behaviour, at the National Police everything remains to be done. 

For this reason, the Agrupación Reformista de Policía has drawn up a Suicide Prevention Plan, which, intending to minimise the number of deaths, aims to be incorporated by the National Police Force into its organisational structure.

For the moment, two political parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos, have already taken an interest in it, and “the people within the Directorate General of the Police are working on drawing up a protocol,” explains Luis Miguel Lorente, general coordinator of ARP.

From this union, aware that prevention and control of this problem are not easy, since it is multi-causal, have outlined a series of measures aimed not only at curbing the number of suicides but also to promote the health of the police, a service, they say, “necessary and demanded for many years by this group. 

In the last decade, more than a hundred police officers have taken their own lives, almost all of them men.

The causes that can lead a person to end their life, such as loss of loved ones, economic, family or work problems, having a history of suicide, having been sexually abused as a child, using alcohol and drugs or suffering from diseases that cause a lot of pain, Other characteristics of police activity are added, such as the stress derived from insomnia generated by work turmoil, the physical danger to which they are often exposed, the unpleasant situations they have to face, the hierarchical structure that puts pressure on them and prevents them, in many cases, from making decisions, geographical mobility or lack of resources.

We must bear in mind that “when people run away, we go”, stresses inspector María Jesús Espiño. “The police are becoming impregnated with all these experiences, and if there are no mechanisms to facilitate their removal, combined with other problems, in some personalities it can lead to suicide being seen as a way out,” she points out.

To this, we must also add that this group has much easier access to means with which to take their own lives. “We carry a gun all day long,” Espiño explains. Suppose there is a medical discharge for depression. In that case, the weapon is removed, “which is the only measure available,” and in those cases “we have colleagues who have ended up committing suicide by hanging or with a chainsaw,” she laments. 

To these factors must be added one more, that of “police training itself,” the inspector said.  “It is based on the fact that we are a kind of supermen and superwomen who cannot cry and that we have to have a stronger stomach than anyone else,” she says. “The problem arises when you take it to the personal level and believe it.

Different symptoms

And if there are specific factors in the causes, there are also those in the symptomatology that police officers with suicidal tendencies may present.  

If a member of this body is aware that he or she has a mental problem, he or she will likely hide it.  “There is a fear of being stigmatised as a weak person, who is no longer in the guild,” Espiño says. This “is encouraged by the institution itself in promotion and training courses,” he acknowledges. “We must set a constant example of self-control,” he says. And “this dichotomous culture, between good and bad, black and white, is a risk factor for potentially suicidal behaviour,” he explains.

There is a fear of losing credibility and reputation, of not practising the profession again or of being deprived of the weapon.

On many occasions, the sick person attributes the problem to workload, family and/or work conflicts, and stress and expects it to resolve itself.  

Paying attention to the signs

Prevenir la conducta suicida de los policías comprende “la intervención sobre los factores de riesgo individuales, familiares, sociales, culturales, económicos y laborales”, entre otros, señalan desde ARP.

Preventing suicidal behaviour by police officers includes “intervention on individual, family, social, cultural, economic and occupational risk factors,” among others, ARP says.

However, although it is difficult, some studies show the existence of more or less clear warning signs that occur weeks or months before death. “These are not harmless calls for attention, but real pleas for help that must be taken very seriously,” they stress.

“The aim is to detect these warnings, to overcome the barriers that prevent police officers from becoming aware that they are ill and to provide them with specialised assistance,” they summarise.

The union insists on the need to guarantee the police officer the confidentiality of treatment, trust and collaboration needed to deal with what happens to him. “This is key for the affected person to become aware of their problem, decide to ask for help and access treatment,” they stress.

Records, checks and assistance

The Plan developed by the Police Reform Group includes different preventive, assistance and training measures. These include the creation of a specialised unit to carry out periodic checks, provide specific aid to police officers who have participated in dangerous interventions and draw up reports and programmes. In this sense, ARP points out, “it would be highly recommendable that therapeutic assistance not be dependent on external services”.

In the same way, they also propose a free, confidential 24-hour telephone line, an anonymous register of psychological discharges and another of suicides and attempts, and the institutionalisation of the psychological autopsy, to try to find out the causes that have led to the death and to be able to avoid them if a similar case occurs.