STIGMA

“Smash Stigma, Save Lives” (Adler, J., 2018) is perhaps four of the most important words we need to hear put into action. As suicide throughout the law enforcement profession continues to skyrocket each day, the question asked repeatedly is, “Why?” If I can be so bold as to simplify this complex problem, the simple answer is “Stigma.” The more challenging question that confronts us is: “How do we address it?”

Stigma has always been the roadblock preventing a police officer, correction officer, or federal agent from seeking help from a mental health professional. Taking that step may be getting easier, but we have a long way to go. The law enforcement professional who is terrified of making that call for help can’t see beyond their hopelessness and chooses to escape from their pain, leaving devastation in their wake.

When I first heard the above quote by Former Bureau of Justice Assistance Director Adler at a conference I attended on Health and Wellness, it left a profound impression on me. It affirmed what I have believed all along about stigma. Stigma is the culprit behind much of what is plaguing the health of law enforcement today, and we can no longer pretend that it doesn’t exist.

Two aspects of stigma need to be presented and explained to understand its meaning better. First, there is “public stigma.” Public stigma can be best categorized as a common reaction by society to individuals who feel the need to seek mental health services for psychological issues (Dickerson, Sommerville, & Origoni, 2002). For law enforcement professionals, public stigma plays a vital role in preventing them from asking for help for fear they will be looked upon as weak or sick.

The second form of stigma is “self-stigma” or “personal stigma.” Self-stigma is when an individual possesses an internalized feeling, creating a psychological impact and often leading to a loss of self-esteem and self-efficacy. This becomes a severe impediment for the law enforcement professional when they struggle with self-worth issues due to their repeated exposure to critical incidents. Frequently, there is an inherent fear of being perceived as weak and incapable of performing “the job.” Another concern is how their department or agency will view their need to receive assistance from a mental health professional.

Only through repeated education and training about stigma, to both the rank and file, will we begin to “smash stigma, save lives.” We cannot continue to delay the obvious. It is imperative that both the law enforcement executive and the street cop and agent begin to work together. There needs to be a genuine desire on both sides of the table to bring an end to stigma and the epidemic of death by suicide.

Off-duty sheriff officer in tactical gear sitting on a couch with his helmet and radio, reflecting after a shift, against a brick wall background.

“Taking the stigma away from therapy in the profession is our biggest challenge. Officers think, ‘If I go do that, I might end up on a desk job.”
-Heath Grant, John Jay College of Criminal Justice