The recent tragic death of a leading senior constable at the Seaford Multi-Disciplinary Centre has again focused attention on the problem of work-related suicides.
Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graeme Ashton has ordered a study into police suicides. The coroner is already investigating four police suicides in recent years and more than 40 Victoria Police officers have reportedly taken their own lives since 1990.
What are some of the issues a study into police suicides would need to cover?
1) The impact of exposure to traumatic and dangerous events
Police Association Secretary Ron Iddles said, “Policing is a very tough job.”
He recalled a comment made by an officer who said, “Every fatal road accident takes a bit out of you and it’s the same with homicides.”
Mr Iddles added, “ Over the past two or three years there is a whole range of factors – dealing with family violence every day, dealing with ice everyday – that can create secondary trauma.”
2) The incidence of mental health issues and how they are managed
Since August last year more than 200 officers have applied for workcover for psychological problems including depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress syndrome.
It is understood the female officer who took her life had a history of mental illness.
Chairman of beyondblue, Jeff Kennett, sees the need for cultural change in the way mental health issues are handled in the police force. He argues that there is a need to address the stigma surrounding mental illness. He says, “We need to enable people suffering from mental health issues to seek help without fearing for their careers or that they have failed.”
It is about being able to put your hand up and say, “I’m not coping”, seeking help without fearing the consequences.
3) The strategies needed to create safe and healthy workplaces for all
The World Health Organisation suggests worker suicide is a result of a complex interaction between individual vulnerabilities and work-related environmental factors that trigger stress reactions and contribute to poor mental wellbeing.
Employers have a legal responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workplace, including managing psychosocial stressors.
It may seem obvious but serving police officers need ongoing counselling and support after every traumatising incident. This shouldn’t be viewed as optional but as a necessary discipline in building awareness, maintaining wellness and fostering resilience.
4) The management of officers who are experiencing mental health issues
Professor Sue Harvey from the Black Dog Institute said, “With police there is a particular problem, while a lot of them are having mental health problems, they are also carrying a weapon around.”
It was reported that the female officer who took her own life used a police service revolver.
Professor Joan Ozanne Smith, from Monash University’s Department of Forensic Medicine says that having access to lethal means can increase the risk of suicide.
She is also quick to point out that suicide is often the result of the complex interplay of work stressors, access to means of suicide, and private contributing factors like an underlying mental health condition.
5) The support needs of those impacted by a suicide including work colleagues and family members
Nick Parvinitis from beyondblue says the worst thing an organisation can do when a staff member dies by suicide is to sweep it under the rug.
It is important to acknowledge the devastating and far reaching impact of suicide and understand the value of targeted bereavement counselling and practical support.
Together for Life was a multifaceted suicide prevention program which prioritised the police force in Montreal, Quebec. Under this program all police officers participated in a half day training course focused on building mental health and suicide literacy; supervisors and union representatives undertook a one day gatekeeper training course; access to care was facilitated by establishing a dedicated confidential telephone helpline for police; and the program was promoted to the workforce via articles in the internal newsletter and posters displayed in the workplace.
Over the 12 years the Together for Life program ran the suicide rate among Montreal police decreased by 79% (from 30/100,000 to 6/100,000).
Sources: Suicide Prevention Australia; The Herald Sun; The Age Newspaper; ABC News; The Sydney Morning Herald