Collaborative Research Examines Suicide Exposure Among Law Enforcement Officers

October 16, 2018

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An interdisciplinary collaboration at the University of Kentucky brought together faculty and student researchers from three colleges to examine the issue of suicide exposure in law enforcement officers. The resulting paper appears in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior. The authors are Dr. Julie Cerel, Dr. Blake Jones, and Dr. Melissa Brown, UK College of Social Work; Dr. David A. Weisenhorn, UK College of Agriculture, Food, and the Environment, School of Human Environmental Sciences; and Kyra Patel, MPH, alumna of the UK College of Public Health, now at Appalachian State University. Dr. Brown, who is a currently a senior service fellow at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is also a graduate of the UK College of Public Health with an MPH in Health Behavior and Epidemiology, and a DrPH in Health Management and Policy.


The research team set out to examine occupational and personal suicide exposure among Law Enforcement Officers (LEOs) and related mental health outcomes. A total of 813 LEOs completed an online survey about their suicide exposure, whether scenes stayed with them, and current symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal ideation.


The investigation found 95 percent of participants had responded to at least one suicide scene. On average, LEOs reported having responded to 30.90 (SD = 57.28) career suicide scenes over the course of their career, and 2.17 completed suicides in the past year. Just over one in five officers (22 percent) reported a scene that they cannot shake or have nightmares about, and 42.5 percent reported at least one scene that “stayed with them.” Almost three fourths (73.4 percent) knew someone personally who had died by suicide.


Based on survey data, investigators observed a significant association between high levels of occupational exposure to suicide, and behavioral health consequences including: PTSD, persistent thoughts of a suicide scene, and the inability to “shake” a scene. The latter two consequences were associated with increased symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and suicidal ideation.


“Law enforcement officers experience a tremendous amount of exposure to suicide scenes and also have personal exposure,” conclude the authors. “There is a need for training to mitigate the effect of these multiple traumas on their mental health.”