Police Suicide Study Recommends Additional Training, Counseling

Photograph: André Ivanoff, Photo credit: Joe Pineiro.

While New York City police officers are more likely than the general public to commit suicide, they respond positively to training programs to offer them avenues of help, a study by André Ivanoff of the School of Social Work has found.

The study's recommendations include further development of confidential counseling resources within the New York Police Department; additional training in handling depression, problematic interpersonal skills, and recognizing the effects of alcohol and drugs, and Police Academy training in officer "lifesaving," how and when to seek help for oneself or a fellow officer when necessary.

"Police officers are trained from day one not to show weakness, and officers believe discussion of problems or feelings is evidence of weakness," said Ivanoff, an associate professor at the school. "Training in the future must incorporate the idea that it's okay to ask for help and talk about negative feelings."

After viewing a film and participating in an in-service training session on police suicide, officers surveyed by questionnaire expressed a greater willingness to seek help for themselves and for fellow officers. Ivanoff conducted the research and trained officers who led the discussion groups.

The Police Suicide Project was a cooperative venture of the NYPD, the New York City Police Foundation and Columbia.

Suicide rates among NYPD officers, at about 29 per 100,000 annually, are considerably higher than among the general United States population, 11.7 per 100,000 in 1992.

Responses to the survey indicate that police view interpersonal problems, depression, and the use of alcohol and drugs as the primary reasons for suicide, not the generalized stress of police work popularly cited in mental health journals. Of 57 police suicides reported by the NYPD between 1985 and mid-1994, relationship problems and depression were the leading factors in cases where a contributing factor was identified.

The method most used by officers committing suicide is the service revolver, according to police department statistics. Among the 57 reported police suicides, all but four were committed with the officer's gun. Ivanoff and other experts believe that police suicides are under-reported, often classified as accidents in part to spare an officer's family from embarrassment.

In 1992, the year of Ivanoff's study, the number of suicides plummeted from an average of between seven and eight a year to just one. She notes that this drop cannot be attributed solely to the training, because in 1993 the number of suicides rose again to eight. There have been 10 police suicides so far in 1994, including two on Sept. 6.

The goals of the Police Suicide Project were to increase knowledge about both myths surrounding suicide and the actual risk factors linked to suicide such as depression, to impart positive attitudes about getting help for problems that seem beyond control and to publicize the NYPD's counseling programs.

"The project met and surpassed its initial objectives," Ivanoff said. "Attitudes toward getting help, specifically toward the use of helping resources for oneself and for others, improved dramatically."

In 1988, the police department asked the foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to strengthen the department's performance, to help sponsor a film with the aim of reducing suicide.

The foundation raised $140,000, hired film maker Jonathan David and created an advisory board of police officials and mental health experts to oversee the project's implementation. The 39-minute film, By Their Own Hand, examines the lives of three police officers who attempted suicide, one successfully.

The film was shown as part of two ongoing training programs conducted twice yearly by the police department. Those programs are Borough-Based Training, for patrol officers, and Centralized Management Training, for sergeants and lieutenants. The training was also administered in borough-based training to officers from the New York Housing Police Department.

Officers participating in the program were asked to fill out a pre-training questionnaire; 5,197 did so for the sample. Immediately after the film and discussion, another questionnaire was administered; 6,149 officers filled that out. Six months after the training sessions, another questionnaire elicited 18,716 responses.

20Responses to the surveys did not vary greatly by ethnicty, gender, age, or marital status, Ivanoff said, although more highly educated officers in general exhibited a greater willingness to seek help for problems.

In post-training and follow-up questionnaires, police officers indicated they were significantly more likely to turn to all types of counseling resources, both inside the NYPD and without, when faced by seemingly insurmountable problems. Six months after the training, more than half the officers indicated they were more aware of minor problems faced by fellow officers. Just half were aware of serious problems, and more than a quarter said they knew another officer who was in crisis or suicidal. Forty percent acknowledged they were more aware of problems in their own lives.

A nonintrusive measure of the training program's effectiveness was a measured increase in utilization of NYPD personal resources, including psychological services, counseling services, early intervention and the helpline. Statistics were collected for a full year prior to the project, through the course of the evaluation and for one full year following the evaluation, from January 1990 through December 1993. Referrals rose from an average of about 75 a month to nearly double that once the pretraining questionnaire was administered, in February 1991.

It's not clear why the Police Suicide Project was effective, Ivanoff said, or which component of the training was most responsible for the observed changes. Many law enforcement organizations mention suicide only in broader stress management programs. "The dramatic nature of the film presentation and its specific focus on suicide appears to have been advantageous," Ivanoff said.

Ivanoff listed her name and telephone number on the questionnaire, and received dozens of telephone calls in the course of the study. "Some called to argue with my approach to studying this issue, but the majority called because they needed help dealing with problems," she said.

Columbia University Record -- September 16, 1994 -- Vol. 20, No. 2