Suicide amongst police officers and staff is unfortunately too common

Suicide amongst police officers and staff is unfortunately too common

Sgt Laura Gibson works with Police Scotland’s Partnerships, Preventions and Community Wellbeing Division focusing on mental health and suicide prevention. A Churchill Fellowship took her to the United States to explore the wellbeing and resilience support and training offered to people working in law enforcement.

"We need to learn, we need to educate, and we need to support our staff so that suicide doesn’t appear to be a decision they feel compelled to take."
Laura Gibson and Dr Jeff Thompson in New York Download 'Laura Gibson'

Content warning: this article references suicide

Police Scotland has experienced relatively few deaths as a result of suicide but nevertheless every one sends a horrific, heart wrenching ripple of despair amongst immediate colleagues and the wider police family.

The risk of suicide amongst police officers and staff is personal to me. I have been open about my own experiences with poor mental health and have also admitted my challenges with suicidal thoughts. At one of my most desperate times I also planned and prepared my own suicide attempt.

When trying to understand suicide risk in the general public, consideration is given to causal or motivational factors which may be existing in that person’s life and there is rarely only one reason why people take their own life.

However, it is accepted that there may be a number of additional risk factors, including organisational structure, scrutinised decision-making and shift-work which increase that risk for police officers.

It is now accepted that the frequent and unpredictable exposure to trauma is a likely risk factor for those who work in emergency response. The hidden toll of policing makes suicide a risk in our organisation and the causes can be varied and complex.

There is an expectation by officers that they will see and experience the worst in human nature and it is generally accepted by most that exposure to trauma is an inevitable occupational hazard.

Although stigma associated with mental illness and the ‘macho’ culture often associated with policing are starting to change, these are still often cited as barriers to disclosure and help-seeking.

The reluctance to share personal and sensitive information regarding poor mental health in fear that it may inhibit career prospects or undermine their perceived capability in their role, still exist.

In 2020, I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to research the wellbeing and resilience support and training offered to law enforcement personnel in the United States.

I travelled in 2023 and had the most wonderful and insightful experience meeting with like-minded people in Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver and New York Police Departments along with a fantastic week at the FBI Academy in Quantico.

In my final week of the Churchill Fellowship, I visited New York and had the pleasure of meeting up with my friend and research colleague, Dr Jeff Thompson. Dr Thompson is a retired NYPD detective and crisis negotiator, and he invited me to attend a Psychological Autopsy training workshop in New Jersey.

In his research he explains that to effectively prevent officer suicide, one must first understand why an individual chose to take his or her own life. This is called postvention, and conducting a psychological autopsy is an effective, scientific way to better understand why officers die by suicide.

The Law Enforcement Psychological Autopsy approach created by Dr Thompson, is conducted as with any other policing investigation, and the purpose is to try and answer the following:

  • Why suicide?
  • Why that method?
  • Why that day?
  • Why didn’t the protective factors in the decedent’s life counter his or her wanting to die?
  • What, if anything, could have been done to prevent it?

The training I participated in included understanding the suicidal mind, recognising risk factors and warning signs, as well as dispelling myths and all investigation, enquiries and evidence gathered are then presented in a 13 section report. Dr Thompson was clear in his delivery that the purpose of the autopsy investigation was not to apportion blame but rather: “This knowledge is owed to fellow officers and must be provided to help prevent future police officer suicides”.

If we don’t understand what factors or circumstances led to the fatal decision for an officer, then simply, how can we prevent it from happening again. We need to learn, we need to educate, and we need to support our staff so that suicide doesn’t appear to be a decision they feel compelled to take.

We also owe it to the families, friends and colleagues of someone who has died, to understand, try to address and answer some of the inevitable, and difficult questions so that loved ones can start to heal.

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health or feeling suicidal, please don’t hesitate to ask for help by contacting your GP, NHS24 on 111, Samaritans on 116 123 or Breathing Space on 0800 83 85 87.

This article first appeared on Suicide Prevention Scotland.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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