Author: Sean Curtis
By Brian Cahill
Appendix A: An Open Letter To All Cops
October 1, 2015
My dear young men and women,
This book is about how a police officer’s depression can and sometimes does lead to suicide. It tells the story of my son’s suicide and the aftermath of that horror and trauma. In different parts of the book I share what I’ve learned about cops and suicide, drawing from the work of major writers, researchers, and therapists in this field. I’m trying to point out that the very things that make you good at what you do – the very things that keep you safe and effective on the street – can, in some cases, lead you down the dark path that my son took.
When I was in the midst of grieving for John, it came to me that I wanted to honor him by putting my energy into trying to help all of you. Now, as I finish writing this story, I feel that desire even more strongly. You spend your days helping and protecting us, willing to put your life on the line for us. Today your job is more difficult than ever, and every decision you make is held up for public scrutiny and judgment. I believe that the great majority of people in this country respect and appreciate you, but I’m not sure you have the opportunity to hear and feel that respect and appreciation. I do know that you get to experience the hate and disrespect that some people on our streets show you.
I want to try to lay out for you here the things you need to know about depression and suicide among police officers, the things you need to look out for, and the things you need to do to survive in your career and retire to a full and joyful life.
I’m not an expert in any of this. I’m not a cop or a psychologist or a researcher. I’m just the father of a cop who lost his way. And I didn’t see it coming. Learning about cops and suicide was not part of my retirement plan. But after John’s suicide, while I assumed that his divorce and its aftermath was a major factor, I found myself wondering whether John’s 19 years as a cop contributed to what happened. I wasn’t trying to blame law enforcement. I just wanted to find out why I lost my son this way.
Today I believe that while the pain and disruption in John’s life in the aftermath of his divorce were dominant, John’s suicide was also linked to his job in ways that weren’t obvious. And that belief and what I’ve learned about cops and suicide motivates me to scream from the rooftops to every one of you who wears a badge and a gun – be careful, be aware of the emotional risks in your work, be aware of how your work can affect your personal life and your family, be aware how being a cop can lead to depression – and, in some cases, self-destruction.
Some of what I’m writing here is a repeat of information from different parts of the book. But I wanted to lay out the basic information and a set of “how to survive steps” in one place, in one chapter. If you don’t read the rest of this book, read this chapter.
My first message to you is that if this could happen to my secure, confident, adventurous, son, this can happen to you, to any of your partners or your team members. And it does.
In the Bay area alone, the San Francisco Police Department has lost six officers to suicide since 2010 – three of them retired and three of them active duty officers. San Jose PD lost my son and a woman officer to suicide in 2008, and a midnight patrol sergeant took his life in 2011. Oakland PD lost two officers to suicide in 2013 and one in 2015. The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department lost a deputy at the end of 2013, and Morgan Hill PD lost an officer just two months ago. According to the Badge of Life, a national organization of former police officers dedicated to preventing law enforcement suicide, 150 cops across the country take their lives every year. The Badge of Life reports that police suicide happens at a far greater rate than police homicide or duty-related accidental deaths.
The Badge of Life also reports that for every police officer that commits suicide, there are a thousand officers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and another thousand cops struggling with marital issues, depression or alcoholism. There are approximately 940,000 police officers in the United States. If the Badge of Life reports are accurate – and I believe they are – this means that up to 30 percent of all working cops are struggling with serious personal problems while they’re on the job. I don’t say this to stigmatize you, but rather to point out that the career you’ve chosen, as noble as it is, can change you, can harm you and your loved ones, and, in some cases, destroy you.
Much of the recent research on law enforcement suicide has been conducted by John Violanti, Ph.D., a former New York state trooper who currently works with the Badge of Life and is on the faculty of the School of Medical and Biomedical Sciences at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The research tells us that good cops are highly functioning in all aspects of their life. They are trained to bring control out of chaos. They’re willing to risk everything in the critical incident because they know that the critical incident will come to closure; it won’t go on forever. These characteristics make for good cops, but these same characteristics can be lethal when a cop gets depressed. They think they’re not functioning well, they’re frustrated because they can’t control things, and they begin to despair because they think their pain – their “critical incident” – will never end. John didn’t think he was functioning well in his work and in his personal life. He was wrong, but his sense of self-worth had been so damaged by his personal problems – his divorce and everything that went with it – that he could no longer see the situation clearly. He also told me how frustrating it was for him not to be able to control his situation. And a month before he died he told me, “This will never end.” At the time I didn’t understand what any of that meant. Now I do.
Again: if this can happen to John Cahill, it can happen to any cop. It can happen to any of you. Until the last 18 months of his life, John was the most secure, healthy, and vibrant human being I knew. He went from being healthy and vibrant to depressed and despairing to completely losing his way. My perception of my son as secure and healthy and strong didn’t allow me to see that he could be capable of suicide.
In Appendix B of this book, I summarize the major books covering the subject of depression and suicide within law enforcement, but here in this open letter I want to briefly emphasize the work of four authors.
Ellen Kirschman is the author of “I Love a Cop.” She does a lot of training with California police agencies. This is the book I would recommend for your loved ones who may not completely understand the nature of your work. Kirschman emphasizes that cops are oriented toward control and can have a distorted but culturally correct sense that they’re invincible and independent – or believe that they should be. Kirschman writes, “A cop’s distress can result from a tangled series of events, often including a devastating relationship loss and a temporarily hopeless outlook.” That was John.
Thomas Joiner is a psychology professor at Florida State University. He wrote “Myths about Suicide.” He points out that in most cases suicide is not an act of cowardice or selfishness. People who commit suicide perceive that they’re a burden, that they don’t belong, and that those who are close to them would be better off if they were gone. They’re wrong, but that is their reality. That was John’s reality. That was the reality of many of the cops who lost their way. They were wrong, but they weren’t cowards.
Kevin Gilmartin, Ph.D., was a street cop in Tucson, Arizona, for twenty years. Today he travels around the country talking to cops, trying to tell them how to survive a police career. He’s the author of “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement.” Every cop should read this book. If I were your father, I would make you read this book. If I were your chief, I would buy this book for you. Gilmartin’s main message is that the very things that make you a good cop, keep you safe, and make you effective on the street can screw up your personal life and, in some cases, destroy you. He points out that hypervigilance on the job produces a healthy amount of cynicism and mistrust, which is necessary for street survival but can be destructive for personal relationships and family life.
For Gilmartin, police suicide is always job-related. Some time ago I had the opportunity to meet him and tell him about John. I said that I was pretty sure that my son did not suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I’ll never forget the sad look on his face when he said to me, “It doesn’t matter; he was a cop for nineteen years, and that was a factor in his death.” Recently I came across a study of fifty-seven NYPD suicides between 1985-1994. Sixty percent of those suicides were determined to have been caused by relationship losses. This job can kill you in a lot of different ways.
A La Mesa police captain, Dan Willis, recently wrote “Bulletproof Spirit,” an easy-to-read book full of practical steps you can follow to take care of yourself. Willis writes about warning signs that can lead to disaster: isolation; irritability; difficulty sleeping; anger; emotional numbness; lack of communication; cynicism; distrust and loss of work satisfaction; depression; drinking as a way to deal with the job or as a habit. He recommends that you keep your private life separate from your job and that you maintain control over your finances. Willis emphasizes the importance of regular exercise, a healthy diet, and moderate use of alcohol and caffeine. He asserts that to be able to survive the stress and trauma of your work, you have to increase your self-awareness “so that you will know when your spirit is suffering from the toxic effects of the job.”
I have just a few more thoughts for you. If the issue I’m talking about here – the risk of suicide among cops – is taken seriously by command staff, by supervisors, by you, by your partner, by your team members, by your families, suicide can be preventable. Maybe we can’t eliminate suicide among cops, but we can significantly reduce the numbers. After John’s suicide, SJPD changed their entire training program and told their officers that if they were depressed, they should come in; when they did they would receive counseling. Their confidentiality would be protected, and they would not be risking their badge. During the next year, twelve cops came in and received counseling. Their privacy was honored, and they have stayed on the job.
But some things have to change – in many police departments and law enforcement agencies and among cops themselves. Some of those changes are cultural.
The biggest cultural change that has to happen – among command staff, supervisors, and officers – is the belief that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Asking for help is a sign of strength, a sign of wisdom, a sign of courage. It is not a sign of weakness. Your reluctance to ask for help is understandable. Your whole focus is on helping others, and cops are supposed to be tough, invincible and independent. But today, we know too much about the emotional dangers of your job, and we see too many tragic situations arising from a culture that considers asking for help to be a sign of weakness, to allow ourselves to indulge in that attitude. So please: if you need help, ask for it.
I would also urge you to consider getting an annual mental health check-up, in the same way you get an annual physical or regular dental check-up. Your bosses should never mandate this, but I’m hoping they’ll come to encourage you to take this step. The only way this can work is if you have access to a list of qualified mental health specialists who know about cops. Otherwise you may end up wasting your time.
San Francisco PD has developed a cadre of mental health professionals who’ve done ride-alongs and gone through firearms training simulator exercises as well as regular sessions with the officers in the department’s behavioral science unit. Those mental health workers get what cops do and understand the stress of the work, so the officers who consult with them won’t have to waste time trying to explain their work to them.
You may be still thinking to yourself, “There’s no way I’m going to see a shrink if I don’t have to.” If that’s where your head is, then I will leave you with this question, which I consider every day: If my son had had the opportunity to establish a relationship with a mental health professional before he became depressed, would he still be alive today?
As cops, you and your fellow officers also have to look out for each other. A growing number of police agencies have developed volunteer peer support programs, which pave the way for officers to serve as confidential resources for their colleagues who need help. SFPD, with a sworn force of 2,100 officers, has 300 trained peer support members. And some departments have developed a Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT). SFPD has forty officers who volunteer as CIRT members. These cops are trained volunteers with twenty-four-hour on-call responsibility (on top of their regular jobs). As CIRT members, they respond by giving emotional support when their fellow officers are involved in critical incidents.
I have the greatest respect for cops. I believe police work is the highest calling, the highest form of public service. It involves obvious risks and hidden risks. You always train for the obvious risks in your job. This father wants to tell you – and hopefully your bosses are beginning to tell you – that you have to train just as hard for the hidden risks in your job. Those hidden risks are more likely to bring you down than a bullet from a bad guy.
I wish you well in your work life and – even more important – in your personal life. God bless you all.