Dr. Patricia Farrell on Medika Life

Suicide by Cop Results in Shared Pain and Mental Illness

People in mental anguish may seek out unusual ways to commit suicide, and using the police as their instrument of choice is one of them.

A person walks up to a police station with a military-style gun pointed at the building. Immediately, they are perceived as a threat, and action must be taken, or violence and death may be the result. The scenario is familiar in that a person and the police are involved without a prior crime committed. One person has a specific, actionable result in mind. Why is it happening? The scenario is known as suicide by cop (SbC).

We know police officers have three things they may share with those who wish to end their misery; high rates of suicide, substance abuse disorders, and marital difficulties. Mental health disorders do not disappear once a uniform is donned. The nature of the job brings them into contact with trauma on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. It is not a job for the faint of heart.

A review of research over the past 20 years on those who choose to commit suicide by cop indicates that the typical perpetrator is a younger white male experiencing romantic relationship conflicts. There is also a significant mental health and criminal history.

The individual is often intoxicated at the time of the incident and is mentally impaired in their ability to recognize what they are pursuing. The most effective interventions by police are expected to be limited to verbal interactions related to the individual’s presenting problems. It’s a process of understanding and going slow. But there’s something more than an attempt at suicide here.

An important aspect of suicide by cops which cannot be ignored is the long-term effects of these types of situations for the police involved, who may experience a level of PTSD not previously explored. And let’s not forget that the incident may happen in a shool where the individual has many students who can be victims which escalates the deadliness of the situation.

Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash

In fact, school shootings have become endemic in our 21 Century culture with the ease of obtaining deadly weapons and protective gear. The number of students exposed to school gun violence since the killings at Columbine is an astounding 278,000 at 298 schools. How many of those kids will go on to have lives seriously affected by these shootings?

We know that the police incidence of PTSD related to violence in their line of work is also of great concern. “Approximately 15% of the police officers in the U.S. and globally experience symptoms of PTSD. Numbers can be much higher based on exposure, such as after natural disasters or tragedies like 9/11.”

But one other factor here is the fact that not all police personnel will report their difficulties or seek counseling, fearing it will affect their careers or how they are seen by others. We see the same reluctance to seek help in the military and healthcare professions. The numbers may be quite conservative.

Whether the shooters intended to kill as many victims as possible and, in the process, go out in a blaze of police gunfire is immaterial. The fact remains that mental health issues are becoming a serious concern for police, school safety officers, school administrators, teachers and ancillary school personnel. Anyone is fair game in these shootings and some will be collateral damage of stray bullets in the foray.

How many kids are, realistically, expressing a reluctance or refusal to go to school fearing they may be killed? This is no longer the attachment problems or school concerns we used to see. These kids are terrified and yet we expect them to return to a school where perhaps nothing happened, but they know all about the schools where kids and teachers were killed.

The danger isn’t necessarily from someone who comes into the school; they’re fellow students. Not even the metal detectors (and not all schools have them) are reassurance. Guns aren’t always the weapons used, as we’ve seen in other countries where knives and hammers have been used to harm or kill children.

The kids in Oxford, Michigan had been hearing of concerns about danger and it wasn’t just a silly fantasy, students died. When a ten-year-old boy tells his mother he doesn’t want to go to school and he’s seen the school psychologist once (did the psychologist think that was enough?), what does a parent do? Kids are asking who’s next? One survey found 91% of teachers are stressed.

Will home schooling become more prevalent as little is done to control the killings in schools by controlling their access to guns or treatment for their mental health problems? How many schools have a full-time school nurse available, much less a psychologist or other counselor? The need increase while the access decreases.

The generation growing up now will be in a world very different from the one we knew. Walking to school has already become unacceptable, going to a school wearing a bulletproof backpack may be suggested and school shooting drills will replace the nuclear bomb ones of the 1950s. Now, however, the fear is real, not a world away, but only a classroom away.

Our kids and our police need our support and our help in more ways than we currently know. How can each of us help? The question is vital and we must include it in discussions at school and in our homes.

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Pat Farrell PhD
Pat Farrell PhDhttps://medium.com/@drpatfarrell
I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.


Medika Editor: Mental Health

I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.

Patricia also acts in an editorial capacity for Medika's mental health articles, providing invaluable input on a wide range of mental health issues.

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