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BADGE OF LIFE

 

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bolThe Myths Surrounding Police Suicide

It’s always good to dispel a few of the myths surrounding police suicide, some of which have been perpetuated to keep them hush-hush or carefully closeted within departments.

 

 

We Know How Many Police Suicides Happen Each Year

 

No one knows how many.No one.

 

Much of the fault lies with police departments themselves, who have done harm to their own officers by muddying the waters, concealing and misclassifying clear cases of suicides as “accidental” or “unknown cause.”

 

Regardless of which side of the argument one stands, one thing is clear–no formal program has been established by law enforcement to track these figures. This is shameful when you think thatdepartments are spending large amounts to solve a problem for which they have no useable data or reliable information.

 

Several private organizations claim to have The Numbers.The National Police Suicide Foundation is frequently quoted, for example, when it gives annual numbers (397 for 2007) and averages of 450 per year.Unfortunately, they are unable to back their number with any organized documentation, give numbers for previous years, dates of suicides, departments, ages, or time on the job.While well intentioned and perhaps of some informal use, we cannot give credibility to numbers that can’t be backed up.

 

 

 

Several private organizations claim to have “The Numbers.”The National Police Suicide Foundation is frequently quoted, for example, when it gives annual numbers (397 for 2007) and averages of 450 per year. Unfortunately, they are unable to back their number with any organized documentation, give numbers for previous years, dates of suicides, departments, ages, or time on the job.While well intentioned and perhaps of some informal use, we cannot give credibility to numbers that can’t be backed up.

 

 

 

Our position is that unsubstantiated data is worse than no data at all.

 

For more on this, as well as our recommendations, read the page “Sloppy Data.”

 

 

“PTSD must be traced to one big event.”

 

It can be.It’s nice and neat that way.Some police agencies are loathe to recognize the important role played by cumulative stress in police work—the daily wounding of the soul over years, over decades.Yes, cumulative stress is a real thing–ask an officer who has been crippled by it.Sadly, it’s the nature of police work and police officers are taught not to talk about it for fear of appearing weak.Banned from the locker room by a code of silence are phrases like:

 

 

“I was really afraid.”

 

“I didn’t know what to do.”

 

“I was lost.”

 

“I made a terrible mistake.”

 

“I wish I could have done something.”

 

“Sometimes I wonder if this is the job for me.”

 

 

Under the heading of “cumulative” are the repeated exposures to screams, to rotting cadavers, assaults, spittings and verbal abuse.

 

Cumulative PTSD, while still rejected by a few hardliners, has finally been accepted in the medical community as real and diagnosable. To quote one expert, “In some ways, a cop’s work may be even more traumatic than that of a soldier sent into a war zone.The police officer’s job, over many years, exposes and reexposes them to traumatic events that would make anybody recoil in horror.”

 

 

Law Enforcement is an Intimate “Family.”

 

If it is, it’s a classic of dysfunctional families.Law enforcement has always been a world of “dirty little secrets.”The armor must remain intact, at all costs.Even officers love shows like “NYPD Blue” because officers smash mirrors and rip towel racks off the walls in the rest room and call the district attorney “a bitch!”–and get away with it.“Angst” is the name of the game–and it’s great entertainment.In the real world, however, the cop knows she can’t rip down the towel rack–and knows it wouldn’t really help, anyway.

 

 

“When in emotional trouble, seek out your fellow officers.”

 

When you’re in emotional trouble, seek out the help of a licensed professional therapist or medical mental health professional!If you have a peer support officer program in your department, take advantage of them for guidance on how to find one.

 

 

“Suicide is an ‘angry act.”

 

Suicide is a painful act.No person wants to die. For some of us, however, the choices seem so few and the pain so great that the only way of finding escape from the pain seems to be suicide.When I exchanged my gun for the telephone and went to the hospital, my first step was to begin crying—the pain was that deep.No one had told me I could do that.I didn’t realize there was an alternative.

 

 

“When you retire, you can relax.”

 

The suicide rate for retired cops is frightening, and far higher than that of active duty officers.For medically retired officers (which includes those retired on PTSD) the suicide rate is even more shameful.The California Association of Highway Patrolmen (CAHP) reports that the suicide ratefor retired officers triples that of the general population.For medically retired officers, they report, the suicide rate is believed to soar to phenomenal levels.

 

 

 

The California Association of Highway Patrolmen (CAHP) reports that the suicide ratefor retired officers triples that of the general population.For medically retired officers, they report, the suicide rate is believed to soar to phenomenal levels.

 

 

Officers cling to the belief, in part based on truth, that they are part of a huge “family” (the ‘brotherhood’) during their careers.When they retire, they suddenly lose that family.They become a nuisance when they show up at their old office to join in coffee breaks.They are relegated to “retiree groups” that render some camaraderie, but which can never equal the feeling of “family” they once felt wearing the badge.

 

Worse, if they had the misfortune of being retired on a stress related injury, such as PTSD, they are regarded, as one officer said, “like the crazy aunt in the basement.” Some drink.Others lose relationships or engage in reckless behaviors.Some isolate and slide into depression.Average life expectancies are low, for officers.Many, as the figures show, choose to simply end it early.What is that telling us?That we have successfully put a band aid on their wounds, by golly, until we could sweep them away, forgotten and suicidal.

 

Badge of Life Staff:

 

1 EDITOR:  Andy O’Hara is a 24 year veteran of the CHP who spent his last day on the bedroom floor with his gun trying to decide whether to shoot himself in the mouth or side of the head.  Hospitalized twice with the effects of his post traumatic stress, he has both written on this topic and spoken to cadets of police agencies in his area.  Through those, he has realized the tremendous potential of a carefully planned, implanted message in this group.  O’Hara was the subject of a Sacramento Magazine article, Relieving the Trauma, in October, 2007.  In addition to his work on police trauma, O’Hara has been a freelance writer and journalist and maintains another site, “Jimston Publishing.” He has authored one book and is writing a second with Dick Augusta on police trauma and sucide.

 

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ASSISTANT EDITOR: Richard (Dick) Augusta‘s career with the California Highway Patrol was cut short in his twelfth year  when, on a traffic stop, a felon got the drop on him and gunned him down.  Dick recovered from his serious wounds but when he tried to return to the road, he was haunted by the post traumatic stress that made him hypersensitive on traffic stops and fearful that he would overreact and harm an innocent person.  In spite of therapy, he was medically retired and now suffers a different kind of depression shared by many medical retirees who suffer not only financially but from feelings that they have been abandoned by their “family” and their wisdom dismissed as useless.  His story can be found in Randy Sutton’s, True Blue, Police Stories by Those Who Have Lived Them.   

 

  

3ASSISTANT EDITOR:  Michael Gotfried, was an officer in the California Highway Patrol and served in the San Francisco/Contra Costa offices.  He vividly recalls the moment he was run down by a motorist, sustaining severe injuries that required extensive surgery. He was disability retired in 2004.

 

 

 

 

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 SENIOR MEMBER:   Ed Estes, CHP, retired on disability with 28 years from the Stockton Area.

 

A truck had overturned and the driver was dead, pinned in the driver’s seat.  Two brothers, ages 2 and 4, were trapped beyond the frantic efforts of Officer Estes and rescue personnel to reach them.  The children were talking softly, gently as diesel fuel poured into the cab and flooded the space occupied by the 2 year-old.  They continued their soft talk until, soon, the compartment filled and the boy was quiet.

 

The silence still haunts Ed 25 years later.  A survivor of a major trauma in Vietnam, as well, he brings a hard-won wisdom to our program.

 

 

Advisory Consultant:  Catherine Leon, Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), is on staff to advise on program planning and development, technical/medical issues and speaking engagements/training when available.  Her experience with PTSD and knowledge of law enforcement issues bring valuable expertise to our program.

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BADGE OF LIFE

I am once again pushing for any of you who have not visited this site to do so. I can’t stress strongly enough what a wonderful site this is. It has broadened my own knowledge of depression and PTSD. I guarantee you’ll come away from a greater appreciation and understanding of what our law enforcement officers face each day. And more importantly, what they face when they are no longer on the force.

http://www.badgeoflife.com//id3.html

ANDY’S STORY

For the first time in my life, I didn’t know what to do. As a police officer, I’d always been able to make a decision.

Now, sitting on the bedroom floor with my service revolver, I couldn’t decide whether to shoot myself up through the mouth or the into side of the head. I loaded and reloaded the gun as I tried to think it through, fingers trembling. I turned the gun into my face and the barrel seemed huge.

I’d had it all. I followed my grandfather into law enforcement, was valedictorian of my class, was first on the sergeants list, and spent 20 of my 24 years on the road. I had become a respected field sergeant and treasured nothing more than wearing the blue and gold of the California Highway Patrol.

Now, I loaded the gun the last time, took a deep breath and raised the gun, determined to blow out my brains and end it quickly. Hearing my wife’s car pulling into the driveway, however, startled me back into reality, confused me and, within hours, I was in a hospital psychiatric unit, in tears and beginning a years-long struggle that continues to this day. I still suffer from nightmares, bouts of anxiety, guilt and paranoia. I have to leave a movie or television show that contains screaming.

How often I’ve wished PTSD could be ‘cured’ with a few magical weeks in therapy.

How often I’ve wished I had a bullet wound I could show to prove my injury.

How often I’ve wished I could sleep at night without having pray for freedom from The Dreams.

I did learn that my diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder was not uncommon to police officers—but was one of those “dirty little secrets” departments didn’t talk about. It was an accumulation of traumatic events I “shrugged off” for years. But the brain never forgets. Screams. Wrestling someone for my own gun. An officer’s face half gone. Mistakes made and regretted. The secrets and the shame of falling short of duty and honor in your own eyes until your heart and soul have nothing left and nowhere to go.

As I have recovered, I have come in touch with many other officers—some retired, some still active—who flee that dark horseman day and night. Some deny it (“It doesn’t bother me.”)
Others know “something” is wrong, but they fear admitting to it or don’t know what to do about it.

Many distrust the suicide prevention programs being offered today, fearful that they’re a token gesture that will fade away in a year or two. Some question the information being given.

That’s why Dick and I put this website together. A lot of bogus information is being thrown out—on how many suicides, on how best to treat a depressed officer, on how “suicide “interventions” should be conducted. We may not have all the information, but the information we give will be straight, as best we can possibly do, or it won’t be in here.

DICK’S STORY (Richard A. Augusta)

I’d had an excellent career for 12 years on the California Highway Patrol. All that ended one fateful night when I was gunned down by armed felons on a “Routine Stop”.

The vehicle had three occupants I only later learned had been on a ‘Crime Spree’ of robberies and murders. While speaking to the driver, one of the male occupants in the back seat shot me point blank from about three feet. The bullet ripped into my body, puncturing my left kidney and sticking to my spine, knocking me to the pavement. I knew I was going to die, but drew my service revolver and started firing at his assailants, despite the intense pain and loss of blood. I was intent on “taking one of them with me”. The assailants fled in their vehicle, and I struggled to my feet and laid on the seat of the patrol car, elevating my feet so I wouldn’t go into shock. In minutes, an ambulance had me on the way to the hospital.

A Catholic Priest was summoned and administered ‘Last Rites’ prior to emergency surgery.

I had many weeks in the hospital to think how close that ‘Routine Stop’ had come to being a one way trip to the cemetery, or worse, a lifetime pass to a wheelchair.

It took a year to heal from the bullet wound, and I then realized I needed psychotherapy to overcome the trauma.

Still, I found I wasn’t able to continue my career after such a traumatic bullet wound injury—few can. I tried, but found myself on the edge of “drawing down” at the slightest provocation. I feared I would do harm to someone innocent. My nerves were on edge constantly. I found myself facing retirement.

Nothing, however, prepared me for what was next—the sense of loss and the crushing “aloneness” an officer feels when he is severely injured on the job, retired, and forgotten. He or she is initially subjected to a wave of sympathy and support, media coverage–and then sent away with a half pension…and forgotten.

I made attempts to approach our Academy, both with letters and in-person requests, to relate my unique story for cadets from my personal experience so they could learn. I was given a smile and the usual feeble excuses. I was naive enough to think that my so-called “Family” would welcome me with a kind reception, but the ‘young’ staff there ignored my interest and offer. It was puzzling to me, as I think that very few of them…if any, have ever experienced receiving a serious bullet wound and living to tell about it…a rarity.

It’s no small wonder that the suicide rate for medically retired officers is the ‘highest’ for all Law Enforcement. They are the “walking dead”, shuffled off to annual BBQ’s; cold receptions at CHP Offices; and a brief obituary in the Association paper. Sadly, I learned how true these words are: “Courage is a fragile thing, and history doesn’t linger for too long anywhere.”

I’m left with a lasting depression from the fateful night that I gave my ALL for the Department and the citizens of California, and most of the young troops don’t know or even, worse, care…until it happens to them.

EDITOR: Andy O’Hara is a 24 year veteran of law enforcement who spent his last day on the bedroom floor with his gun trying to decide whether to shoot himself in the mouth or side of the head. Hospitalized twice with the effects of his post traumatic stress, he has both written on this topic and spoken to cadets of police agencies in his area. Through those, he has realized the tremendous potential of a carefully planned, implanted message in this group. O’Hara was the subject of a Sacramento Magazine article, Reliving the Trauma, in October, 2007.

In addition to his work on police trauma, O’Hara has been a freelance writer and journalist and maintains another site, “Jimston Publishing.” Sacramento Magazine October 2007
Relieving the Trauma
By Cathy Cassinos-Carr

For sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, prompt and proper treatment can be lifesaving.

The faces of post-traumatic stress disorder are as diverse as they are disconcerting.

There are the faces we expect to see—the Vietnam veteran still haunted by flashbacks, the soldier just back from Iraq who sees a clump of dirt in the road and swerves instinctively to avoid a bomb.

There are the police officers, firefighters and paramedics whose daily dance with death is the very definition of traumatic stress.

And then there are the everyday people afflicted by PTSD—a group less visible but equally in need of help.

“People think first of soldiers, but the more common causes of PTSD are significant auto accidents, physical and sexual assaults, and other situations that put a threat to your personal existence, such as the recent fires in Tahoe,” says Peter Yellowlees, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at UC Davis. An estimated 5.2 million American adults have PTSD in any given year, according to the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

What causes post-traumatic stress disorder?
Exposure to a traumatic event that causes or threatens serious harm or death to you or to others is the precipitating factor for PTSD. Whether single or repetitive in nature, the event is typically characterized by “a flavor of being horrific, extreme, catastrophic and out of the blue, so there’s no ability to cope or prepare,” says psychiatrist Richard Bowdle, M.D., medical director for Sutter Mental Health in Sacramento.

Flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbness, anger, irritability, hyper-vigilance and avoidance behavior are some of the hallmarks of PTSD. Related physical complaints are common, including gastrointestinal distress, headaches, muscle cramps and aches, lower back pain and gynecological problems. Symptoms may start soon after the event or be delayed for months or years, and then wax and wane. While anyone with acute symptoms lasting longer than four weeks is likely to have PTSD, a formal diagnosis can be made at six months, according to Yellowlees.

Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD. Yet, curiously, the disorder can manifest in those who are one step removed. “You can witness the event or be told about the event and get PTSD,” notes Bowdle, who sees PTSD patients every day. “Yes, there are a lot of soldiers who develop PTSD. But there are also a lot of family members watching coverage of the war on TV who can be equally affected.”

Science is still looking at the question of why some traumatized individuals develop the condition while others don’t. Some theorize that genes and brain chemicals may play a part, including gastrin-releasing peptide, which in mice appears to help control the fear response. Head injury, a history of mental illness, a tendency to view challenges negatively and a lack of social support are other factors that may adversely affect an individual’s response to trauma.

Intensity, duration and frequency of trauma also can increase one’s vulnerability to the disorder, says Melinda Keenan, Ph.D., a psychologist and coordinator of the PTSD program at the Sacramento VA Medical Center. “A lot of people think that people who get PTSD are psychologically weak or that something’s wrong with them,” says Keenan, who has treated veterans from World War II forward. “Anybody can get PTSD if exposed to a stressor that is intense enough.”

Combat and PTSD
Keenan says about 17 percent of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are currently showing symptoms of PTSD. But the final tally is expected to be unprecedented, say experts, pointing to such added stressors as repeated deployments and an absence of safe zones. Soldiers serving multiple war-zone rotations are significantly more likely than those with one tour to develop acute combat stress, increasing their risk of PTSD, according to a recent Army study.

Alex Maxwell, who served on the front lines of the Iraq invasion in 2003, returned home to Sacramento after less than a year in combat, a victim of PTSD. “I started having nightmares and noticed something was different about myself,” recalls the 26-year-old former Marine. “But no one told us about PTSD, so I didn’t know what it was.” As he tried to readjust to civilian life he found himself in a daze, running red lights (stopping in Iraq meant possible ambush) and swerving to avoid trash in the road, still on alert for bombs. “I felt like I was going mad. My anxiety level was through the roof. I would see their (Iraqi) faces in my dreams and wake up, sweating, thinking I was still in Iraq.” Counseling through the VA has been helpful, Maxwell says, but he’s still struggling. “I’m learning a lot about myself, and I’m better equipped to handle myself in everyday life. I’m having fewer nightmares. But the internal struggle is still there.”

The struggle also continues for Andy O’Hara, a 60-year-old retired California Highway Patrol sergeant whose battle with PTSD resulted in a near-suicide attempt. “My 24-year career ended with me sitting on the bedroom floor with my service revolver loaded, trying to decide whether to shoot myself in the side of the mouth or in the head,” says O’Hara, who was stopped by his wife and immediately entered hospital treatment. Though he witnessed murders and dodged bullets in the line of duty, O’Hara’s disorder was not prompted by a single catastrophic event, but came on cumulatively—the end result of a life of police work.

“People don’t realize that sometimes cops feel very helpless, but yet they’re trained to remain in control, to not talk about being scared or about mistakes they’ve made,” he says. A lifetime of such suppression can take its toll, and the “dirty little secrets of an officer’s life,” as O’Hara calls them, ultimately come home to roost, often in the form of PTSD.
Treatment Options
Early intervention and proper treatment is important for any health disorder. But for those with PTSD, which has an alarmingly high suicide rate of 20 percent, it literally can be lifesaving. “There’s a significant level of suicide attempt and completion,” says UC Davis’ Yellowlees. “I’ve seen several servicemen who’ve tried to kill themselves while on a break from military combat because they were due to go back to Iraq.” Depression and substance abuse, both commonly associated with PTSD, increase the likelihood of harming oneself and also complicate treatment.

Diagnosed and treated early, the disorder can be nipped in the bud before full-blown PTSD develops, according to Sutter’s Bowdle. “In about half the cases, early treatment with psychological and sociological interventions can prevent the full-fledged disorder,” he says. “Like anything else, the longer it lasts in the system, the harder it is to treat.”

While psychiatrists typically combine antidepressants and psychotherapy (“talk therapy”), a number of other approaches also have been found to be useful in treating PTSD, including cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches patients different ways of thinking and reacting to events that trigger symptoms. “I find it to be very effective with my PTSD patients,” says Laurie Wiggen, a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Roseville. “It’s very hands-on, giving them the tools to handle whatever comes their way.” Anxiety reduction techniques also are an important part of therapy, says Wiggen, because with anxiety disorders such as PTSD, “there is often anxiety with the anxiety—becoming fearful of having a panic attack or feeling anxious about when they’re going to have the next flashback.”

Alternative, shorter-term treatments also offer hope. Roger Vuilleumier, a marriage and family therapist for Mercy Medical Group, reports an astonishing success rate of virtually 100 percent with hypnotherapy, which he’s been using with PTSD patients for nearly 15 years. In just two sessions, he says, “the PTSD-specific symptoms disappear—the nightmares, the flashbacks, the hyper-arousal.” But hypnosis won’t erase such concurring symptoms as depression, he notes. Another short-term therapy gaining ground in PTSD treatment is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, which has been shown in numerous studies to be effective.

All of which leads to the $6 million question: Can PTSD, with its chronic and recurrent nature, ever be cured?

O’Hara, the CHP sergeant who is still haunted by ghosts of the past after 14 years of “the best of care,” has his doubts.

“Faces in a store take me back to horrible events,” he says. “I have to avoid movies or television shows that have screams in them. Stresses that were once routine can now be overpowering.” The damage, he suspects, is never completely undone.

“Trauma breaks your heart,” says the VA’s Keenan. “You can’t go back to being perfect or the way you were before.” But with proper treatment, she says, symptoms can be significantly reduced and quality of life improved.
Moving Forward, With Hope
One bright light at the end of the tunnel may exist in the form of drug therapy. Early studies are promising for the beta-blocker propranolol (Inderal), which has been shown to reduce or seemingly prevent PTSD in small numbers of trauma victims. Already widely prescribed to treat high blood pressure, propranolol inhibits the release of certain stress hormones, which, in PTSD, may help to stop unwanted memories from being reinforced in the “hard drive” of the brain.

Time will tell whether such medications will give a new lease on life to PTSD sufferers. Meanwhile, suggests Yellowlees, it’s important to see the glass as half full, because treatment can help.

“Most of these people do get better over time, so you’ve got to have a positive approach,” he says. “It may take one to three years. But the great majority do gradually get better.”

Data shows that about half of those who receive treatment for PTSD do get better with time. About one out of three will always have some symptoms.

Removing the stigma

While recovery can’t happen without help, men in particular are unlikely to step forward. “Males, on the whole, tend to be more likely to be stoic and not admit they’ve got a problem,” says Yellowlees. One thing that can move them in that direction, he says, is connecting with others in the same boat. “Group support is clearly very helpful.”

Seconding that notion is Keenan. “I wholeheartedly believe group therapy is the most effective for PTSD because it’s so isolating—makes you feel like a pariah.” Most PTSD patients at the VA are treated in a group, not individually, she says.

Support is needed—and with that should come the destigmatization of mental illness, adds Robert Ruxin, M.D., chief of outpatient psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente in South Sacramento.

“It’s like everything else in mental health: You have to get past the stigma and get people treated and get treated early,” he says. “If someone gets PTSD, it’s not something you can blame them for. It’s not their fault.”

Symptom clusters of post-traumatic stress disorder
The four main symptom clusters are:

• Reliving the event (also called re-experiencing symptoms)

• Avoiding situations that remind you of the event

• Feeling numb

• Feeling keyed up (also called arousal or hyper-arousal)

Source: National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD Facts
• Women are twice as likely to develop PTSD as men.

• About 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women experience a traumatic event in their lives. Women are more likely to experience sexual abuse as children and sexual assault. Men are more likely to experience accidents, physical assault, combat, disaster or to witness death or injury.

• Military sexual trauma (sexual harassment and/or assault experienced while in the military) also is a common cause of PTSD. Among veterans using VA health care, approximately 23 percent of women reported they had been victims of MST.

• Most people who experience a traumatic event will not develop PTSD.

Source: National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

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