For over forty years I have been a member of the law enforcement profession. For almost as long, I have been proudly affiliated with the U.S. Armed Forces, specifically the U.S. Air Force Reserve. From the very beginning of my careers in the mid 1970’s, law enforcement was given the badge of dishonor of having one of the highest divorce rates and even worse, one of the highest suicide rates, particularly among retirees of similar professions. Already I can hear you thinking, this is going to be a downer of a message; I don’t think I care to keep reading, or listening. I don’t blame you, suicide is a sad, painful topic. But in the midst of that pain and sadness, I come to you with two kinds of good news, first about suicide rates and second about the ultimate option that can be used to prevent the rates from spiraling out of control again.
What prompted me to write this was an article I read recently in the publication of the Air Force Security Forces Association, of which I am proud to be a member. It also caused me to look up some information on police related suicides as well. Here is the first bit of good news. The suicide rates for the U.S. military for all branches declined from 2012 to 2013. In 2012 there were 522 suicide deaths among all services. Of those, fifty-seven were airmen. The data for 2013, though not complete, shows that service wide the number dropped to 474. Lt. General Michael Linnington, Military Deputy at the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness (can you imagine putting that on your business card?) says that “With an 18 percent drop in 2013, something is going right.” I agree with the General with one glowing exception. The 48 deaths less from 2012 to 2013 is just over 10 percent. To get an 18 percent change, the Lt. General was only counting the fifty-eight deaths less from the 319 to 261 Active Duty suicides between 2012 and 2013. Fifty-eight is 18 percent of 319 but if we are really counting all of our members, then we should really count all of them. Still, almost 11 percent improvement is a good thing and when the Lt. General says, “something is going right” I agree. I also agree with his remark that “one suicide is too many.” He said that the services needed to focus their efforts on where they believe they are most needed.
That comment struck me just a bit as I recalled an internet message I received just recently from the U.S. Navy Reserve unit based in Cleveland and Akron here in NE Ohio. I had written to the unit’s program manager. She had informed me that the unit only had a part time chaplain. I am completing training for trauma counseling with a focus on military personnel and I have been certified for trauma counseling through the American Association of Christian Counselors. I volunteered my services to this Reserve unit and after checking with her commander, she informed me that they had no need for trauma counseling. I trust that the commander of the U.S. Navy Reserve contingent in NE Ohio is very thankful that he has a unit free of trauma. I pray that he never has to face the family of a Reservist who has committed suicide, I really do.
Then, of course, there is the law enforcement side of the picture. Again, there is a decline in the number of suicides among police. I do not believe these numbers reflect police retirees, only active duty law enforcement. “The Badge of Life (BOL) just released their initial report on law enforcement suicides over the past year. The good news is that the police suicide rate dropped in 2012 when compared to 2009 (the last time a study was completed). The bad news is it didn’t drop enough. One hundred twenty six law enforcement officers committed suicide in 2012. Additionally, in 2012, 129 officers “died in the line of duty”
When we consider retirees or, for the military, if we look at veterans, the numbers are not as encouraging. For example, veterans are committing suicide at more than double the U.S. civilian population. “Records from 48 states show the annual suicide rate among veterans is about 30 for every 100,000 of the population, compared to a civilian rate of about 14 per 100,000. The suicide rate among veterans increased an average 2.6 percent a year from 2005 to 2011, or more than double that of the 1.1 percent civilian rate, according to News21’s analysis of states’ mortality data.” Police retiree suicide numbers are not as traceable because so many leave law enforcement and go on to other careers, often their suicides are not considered linked to the police work and there is no central reporting mechanism for such events. It is often impossible to track the suicides of those retired through their pension systems because cause of death is not a question that is recorded.
There are several factors that make finding a specific cause or causes for these alarming rates nearly impossible. For example, in both the police community and in the military the vast diversity of types of personalities, backgrounds, faiths, family dynamics, education, and personal health all create variables that make defining the problem even more complex. Suicide rates nationally vary by regions, this affects the police numbers as well. Pre-employment screening is done in some places, not in others. Would such screening have identified certain officers as more likely to commit suicide? Intervention programs, where they exist, also vary greatly across the country. Some departments have complete mental health resources available to their personnel. Others are more like the Navy commander and don’t see a need for such intervention.
So there is ‘good news’ and ugh… not so good news. As the General said, even one is too many but we, as a society, or as subcultures of society, such as the police or military, are limited to how far we can go. Recent studies show that suicide rates for veterans are skyrocketing. Yes, while men and women are in the service or on the job, they have resources; but those resources diminish to nearly nothing once a person retires or is discharged from active duty. There are too many cracks through which someone can fall. The answer comes by way of something that, though it is an answer, it is still a double edged sword.
Just as with the vast majority of our society’s ills, the key ingredient, the most efficacious remedy, the strongest, most resilient binding for wounds that can help bring people through their horrific dark times is family. The erosion of the family unit in America is the primary event that has led to the inability to care for our own. It is at once, that simple and that complicated.
Suicide has touched almost everyone in some form or another. I know of two that are so very close to me that I can speak with some authority to this next point. Even when family is close, even when persons who care desperately attempt to intervene, sometimes it is not enough and – this next point is critical – it is NOT the fault of the family members left behind for something that they did or did not do. When an individual reaches a point of deciding to take their own life, I firmly believe that they are not capable of thinking rationally, nor clearly. Certainly, their actions may be well planned and seemingly thought through to the minutest detail, but the rational part of the mind that would allow them to see the pain that they will cause, the simple trading of one set of problems for others that may be eternally worse is not part of their thinking process. Their physical pain or mental torture has brought them to the brink of an abyss that no one can see but them and they seek, what they believe to be, a release from whatever demons are driving them. No family member, friend, or significant other should ever carry the guilt of another’s suicide but rather realize that the person who has fully acquiesced to self-inflicted death is beyond anyone’s ability to reason with them. Those who are brought back from the brink of that abyss were, I believe, not yet fully committed to the final act.
There is only one person who has the capability to fully understand that pain and have the ability to meet someone there in that pain and give that person the peace with life’s circumstances so as to help them back from the precipice. That person is Jesus Christ. That is the truly Good News that can make all of the difference in the world. I made the comment that when someone has reached that final point of despair they are beyond anyone’s ability to reason with them. When I say that I know that first, with God all things are possible but I also believe that Christ would not reason with them. His intervening in their lives would be of such an amazing of grace that it would be irresistible. However, God does permit man to choose his own path; but families and friends can pray and seek God’s intervention. God’s Word assures us that: “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.”
So here we are, several paragraphs later and to what good point has this discussion arrived? Has it illumined for you, dear reader, dear listener the plight of our veterans, our military active duty and reservists; or our law enforcement and encouraged you to pray for them and for their families? Has it stirred you to seek a deeper walk with Christ so that you might know better how to pray, that you might encourage someone to accept the grace of Christ Jesus, His forgiveness and His peace? Perhaps the next time you see a homeless person on the street, you may envision a former soldier, sailor or airmen who fought valiantly but later lost everything. Maybe you will offer a word of encouragement instead of looking away, maybe even just a friendly glance. I am reminded of a story of a young man who can relate better than anyone what just such a kind gesture might mean. His name is Kevin Hines. He knows the statistics that over 1,300 people have jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge to their death and only about a dozen have jumped and survived. Mr. Hines is one of them. I will let him tell you his story as retold by Dr. Robert Simon
“Mr. John Kevin Hines, who said he was one of only two persons to survive a jump from the bridge since 2000, was a presenter at the workshop. Mr. Hines’s description of his profound mental suffering and isolation that preceded his suicide attempt was gripping and emotionally moving. The audience asked many questions.
Mr. Hines described his struggle with a severe bipolar disorder that emerged during his adolescence and worsened over time. Mr. Hines was overwhelmed by paranoid delusions and command auditory hallucinations demanding that he kill himself. Unable to function, he withdrew from college and immediately took a bus to the Golden Gate Bridge. Like many people about to commit suicide, he was ambivalent about dying. He tarried at the bridge railing for about 40 minutes, trying to decide whether to go through with his plan to jump.
A number of people walked by him, oblivious to his anguish, unaware of his life-and-death struggle. Mr. Hines told us that “If someone had smiled and said, ‘Are you okay?’ I know I would have begged them to help me. I would have told them everything and asked for help. I would not have jumped. I just was unable to ask for help myself.” In fact, a foreign tourist did stop and talk with Mr. Hines. She asked him to take her picture, which he did. As she walked away, he felt more than ever that “Nobody really cares.” He jumped. On the way down, he changed his mind. He remembered thinking, “I want to live. Why am I doing this?” It was too late. Severely injured, Mr. Hines was kept afloat by a sea lion until rescuers arrived.
I asked Mr. Hines that if someone had smiled at him when he was on the bridge, given the severity of his mental illness, would it have prevented his suicide attempt. He answered, “Yes, a smile would have most definitely helped in my case. If the smile is genuine and caring, and it looks like the person is approachable, that person could have such an impact on a suicidal person at the moment of desperation. They could well save a life.”
As surely as Jonah was saved by a ‘big fish’ sent by God, it was God that sent that sea lion. What all of those people who passed by could have done, they did not; God had to use a sea lion instead. I do not profess to know much but as I consider the places that I travel to every single day here in Northeast Ohio, I know that there are no sea lions here, except in the zoo. So, I have decided that since God cannot depend on using a sea lion to help someone in desperate need; I will have to make certain that I am as ready as I can be so He can use me.