Editorials

Josh Hawley bill to prevent police suicides will support those who protect and serve us

Suicides are rising across the U.S.

Suicide is on the rise across the United States. It is more than a mental health condition — states and communities can adopt comprehensive strategies to prevent suicide.
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Suicide is on the rise across the United States. It is more than a mental health condition — states and communities can adopt comprehensive strategies to prevent suicide.

Law enforcement officers face a great many risks. But we might just have a shot at reducing this one.

For the third year in a row, more U.S. law enforcement officers died by suicide in 2018 than were killed in the line of duty, according to the nonprofit law enforcement support group Blue H.E.L.P. The group says at least 167 officers nationwide killed themselves last year, more than those who died from the combined total of assaults, accidents and illnesses.

It is a clear and present danger right here in Kansas City. As Police Chief Rick Smith wrote in a Star column in May, a detective’s suicide last February was the department’s fourth in as many years.

Can you imagine your own coworkers succumbing to despair and hopelessness at that rate?

Tragically, law enforcement officers don’t have to imagine it. Police work carries with it many of the risks of a military career — not only to life and limb but to mental health. Yet as Smith noted, society has long tended to officers’ physical health but not so much to their mental and emotional well-being. That absolutely has to change.

It should, with the swift and overwhelming passage of Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley’s Supporting and Treating Officers in Crisis Act. The bill, which passed the Senate and the House without opposition and is now headed to President Donald Trump’s desk, will provide $7.5 million in grants annually over five years for suicide prevention and mental health services for law enforcement departments across the country.

Police not only do battle with criminal elements but also come upon blood-drenched accidents and haunting homicide scenes. Most of us would turn away from such images, but for law enforcement officers, that’s not an option. It’s called secondary trauma, this absorption of other people’s trauma by the helping professions. The cumulative toll of it is silent and can be deadly. Sleeplessness. Anxiety. Depression. Addiction. Frayed families. Thoughts of suicide.

Hawley’s office says “between 25% and 30% of police officers have stress-based physical health problems,” and that 7% certifiably suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Suicide rates in law enforcement and firefighting, Hawley’s office says, are 40% higher than the national average.

All the while, misguided notions of strength and stoicism, or perhaps archaic conceptions about mental health, may prevent traumatized officers from acknowledging problems and seeking help.

Some things are just too explosive to keep bottled up.

“It’s a heavy burden, and it’s one we hope to ease with the help of a department psychiatrist,” Smith wrote about the potential for mental health funds.

With this bill, Hawley has accomplished a rare feat for a freshman senator, passing consequential legislation with bipartisan support. More importantly, this measure is a huge win for our guardians in law enforcement.

After so many years of neglecting the mental health and emotional well-being of the law enforcement officers who watch over our communities, it’s our turn to protect and serve them.

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