West Michigan Tackles Police Suicide, Leading Cause Of Officer Deaths Nationwide

Posted at 10:52 PM, May 06, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-07 05:47:05-04

HOLLAND, Mich. — The stress that comes with being a police officer sometimes leads to suicide. Officers constantly witness terrible acts, which can sometimes add up to devastating consequences. Now, suicide awareness among law enforcement is starting to reverse a trend.

Detective James Ludema, with the Holland Department of Public Safety, has been a resource officer for the past three years.

“Just like you would look at a friend and see they might be going through something that is difficult in their life, I think it’s incumbent upon us as a peer support group to look out for those type of things and be that type of friend that will be there for him,” Det. Ludema said. “Officers believe that the dreams that they had or thoughts they had were abnormal, when in fact they are absolutely normal and part of the healing process.”

The detective said the cumulative effect of investigating horrible crimes, meeting with people in the worst moments of their lives, trickles into an officer’s life.

If untreated, it can lead to depression, substance abuse or worse.

An example can be found at the police department in the small town of Fairfax, Minn.
“In my 24 years of being a cop, I have seen a lot of things that I prefer to forget,” Fairfax Police Chief Kevin Hagan said. “One night I was sitting in my living room, and I decided that I was either going to kill myself right then or there or I was going to seek help.”

Chief Hagan decided to call a police suicide hotline,

Two days later, Chief Hagan was getting treatment for post traumatic stress disorder and severe depression in Memphis.

He said it was due to his chosen line of work. “It’s such a stigma in law enforcement that we are the helpers, we shouldn’t be asking for help,” said Chief Hagan.

The walls put up by officers appear to be cracking. According to The National Study of Police Suicides the numbers are going in the right direction.

  • In 2008: 141 reported officer suicides.
  • In 2009: 143 reported officer suicides.
  • In 2012: 126 reported officer suicides.

Also in 2012, there were 126 officers killed in the line of duty.

According to that same study, the drop in the number of reported suicides can be attributed to the increased number of peer support programs offered at police departments.

Detective James Ludema, with the Holland Department of Public Safety, has been a resource officer for the past three years.

“I’ve been to a few trainings that involve police suicide and talking about police suicide, and it’s a problem,” said Det. Ludema. As an officer, it can be easier for him to relate to what his co-workers are going through. Such was the case for Chief Hagan. “If an officer knows that he has the support through his department, he is going to be likely to ask for help,” said Hagan.

Detective Ludema admits the current system isn’t perfect. While he keeps his peer meetings confidential, he’s not required to and could be called to testify in court if needed, he said.

Both Ludema and Hagan say more people might be willing to open up about internal struggles if they knew it couldn’t be held against them.

Holland isn’t the only department in West Michigan that offers peer assistance.

The Allegan County Sheriff’s Department has a similar program.

The City of Kalamazoo and several others have employee assistance programs that offer peer assistance for all city employees, including those in law enforcement.