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Police officers are at a higher risk of suicide than any other profession. In fact, suicide is so prevalent in the profession that the number of police officers who died by suicide is more than triple that of officers who were fatally injured in the line of duty. Researchers are attributing these statistics to the unique combination of easy access to deadly weapons, intense stress, and human devastation that police are exposed to on a daily basis.
13 out of every 100,000 people die by suicide in the general population – that number increases to 17 out of 100,000 for police officers. During the 2018 calendar year, 167 law enforcement officers tragically took their own lives, and that number is projected to increase during 2019. As of August of this year, a total of 134 officers have committed suicide with four months of the year still left and unaccounted for. Some prevention advocates say that these statistics don’t even reflect the true number of suicides, as some families chose not to report the cause of death or instead transcribe the death as ‘accidental.’
California, Florida, New York, and Texas suffer from the highest rates of officer suicides, with each reporting at least 10 police suicides last year. In fact, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) even received national attention during 2018 for its high rate of officer suicides. NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill declared a mental health crisis as the city grappled with the suicide deaths of nine police officers. At least six of the nine deaths in the NYPD involved a gun, many using their own service weapon.
The Chicago Police Department experienced a similar situation and was forced to confront its own epidemic of police suicides this past year. With the second largest force in the nation consisting of over 13,000 officers, Chicago’s police suicide rate was 60% higher than the national law enforcement average.
The tragedy experienced by NYPD and Chicago PD sparked the launch of a new mental health campaign, which included doubling the number of clinicians and therapists available to officers, as well as a video campaign showing senior officers admitting to their own struggles with mental health. President Donald Trump also authorized $7.5 million in grant funding for police suicide prevention, mental health screenings, and training as departments across the country work to decrease the numbers.
Police officers are first on the scene of some of the most dangerous and demanding situations imaginable, providing immediate care and support. Although these heroic duties are essential to society, they can be very strenuous and emotionally draining to those in the profession. Police officers face a great deal of trauma on a day-to-day basis. This constant exposure to devastation, life-threatening situations, and the physical strain of working long hours can lead officers feeling hopeless and anxious.
In addition to the threat of physical harm, officers are constantly witnessing devastating and disturbing events such as murder, suicide, and domestic violence. On average, police officers witness 188 ‘critical incidents’ during their careers. This exposure to horrific accidents can lead to multiple mental health issues that often get untreated. For example, the rates for PTSD and depression among police officers is five times higher than that of the civilian population.
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They see abused kids, they see dead bodies, they see horrible traffic accidents. And what that means is that the traumatic events and stressful events kind of build on one another… If you have to put a bulletproof vest on before you go to work, that’s an indication you’re already under the possibility of being shot or killed. So all of these things weigh heavily on the psyche and over time, they hurt the officers.
Trauma deals a strong blow to mental health causing a feel of lack of control, vulnerability, and of not be able to cope with future occurrences. The work of a police officer can also disrupt sleep, cause friction with loved ones, create financial strain, and trigger substance abuse – all of which are risk-factors for suicide.
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Despite the prevalence of mental health issues amongst law enforcement, there is a stigma around getting help. Many officers view asking for help as a sign of weakness or that if they acknowledge they have a problem with mental health then something is “wrong” with them. Additionally, many fear that talking about their struggles will result in stigma from other officers, career setbacks, and the shame of having their weapons removed.
This fear is what causes many officers to turn to substance use in an attempt to self-medicate their feelings and forget the horrible things they see on duty, which is having a deadly result. Using alcohol and/or drugs can lead to a downward spiral in which both work performance and relationships suffer. This can then increase feelings of stress and depression, which in turn, leads to further substance abuse. Substance use is also one of the main contributing factors to suicide. Of the 89 completed suicides in the NYPD over the years, 72% had alcohol in their system at the time of suicide.
In order to reduce law enforcement suicide rates, officers and mental health advocates alike are stressing the importance of overcoming the idea that seeking help is a sign of weakness and that support in the form of professional counseling, support groups, and chaplains are readily available.
Lead researcher and co-author of a study by the Ruderman Foundation, Mariam Heyman, believes that the key to ending police officer suicides is ending the silence that surrounds the issue of first responder mental health: “We should celebrate the lives of those lost to suicide – at national monuments such as the National Law Enforcement Memorial, in the media, and within police and fire departments around the country. Also, departments should encourage or require first responders to access mental health services annually. This will enable our heroes to identify issues early, and get the help that they need. It will save lives.”
Of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the U.S., approximately only 5% currently have suicide prevention training programs. Researchers are hoping to spark awareness and increase police officer accessibility to confidential mental health resources.
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