Roundtable: Suicide Rates Rise Among Teens And Law Enforcement Officers

Oct 20, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to tackle a sensitive subject now. It is the subject of suicide. And we're talking about this because this has been a week of difficult news. Yesterday morning, a funeral was held for a suburban Maryland police officer who'd been found last Monday on the top floor of a parking garage suffering from a gunshot wound. He was on duty and said he was confronting someone, but later the medical examiner confirmed that gunshot was self-inflicted.

On Tuesday evening, a 33-year-old New York City officer was found dead by his wife, also by suicide. That officer's death marked the 10th police suicide in New York this year alone. And police commissioner James O'Neill told local journalists that far more police suicides have already taken place in this year than in most. And while we could have a conversation solely about this disturbing trend among police officers, there is more.

Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control published new data and reported that death rates from suicide are on the rise among very young people aged 10 to 24. The rate is up 56% in the last decade. Before we say any more, we want to tell you, if you are in distress or know someone who is, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can call 24 hours a day. We wanted to talk about what might be happening here with people who have thought a lot about this issue and what might be done about it.

Catherine Barber is a senior researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health's Injury Research Center. She joins us from Boston. Catherine Barber, welcome.

CATHERINE BARBER: Thank you. I'm glad to be with you.

MARTIN: We're also joined by Sergeant Kevin Briggs. Formerly with the California Highway Patrol, he's now a mental health advocate. Sergeant Briggs is well known for his work on the Golden Gate Bridge, where he answered four to six suicidal calls each month and trained other officers to deal with these calls. He's with us from KRCB in Rohnert Park, Calif. Sergeant Briggs, welcome to you as well. Thanks for joining us.

KEVIN BRIGGS: Thank you. Great to be here.

MARTIN: And last but certainly not least, Dr. Jonathan Singer is with us from WBEZ Chicago. He's the president of the American Association of Suicidology and an associate professor of social work at Loyola University. Dr. Singer, thanks for talking to us as well.

JONATHAN SINGER: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: And I'm going to start with you. All of this is troubling, but I'm going to start with something I think will shock a lot of people. Those numbers from the CDC report that the suicide rates for children 10 to 14 years old tripled from 2007 to 2017. What might be going on here?

SINGER: You know, the tragedy of youth suicide is so painful for everybody. And one of the things that people have a hard time believing is that a 10-year-old could think about killing themselves. The increase is in part due to the fact that there were very few reported suicide deaths, and there are more and more. Part of that is reporting, and part of that is access to lethal means. And so these are some of the reasons why the the rates are going up for youth.

MARTIN: Catherine Barber, what do you think is going on here?

BARBER: I actually don't know why it is going up across all age groups. And that's been unusual. That's been happening since about 2008. And when people say they know the reasons, I'm usually skeptical. And so when people go to simple solutions, simple explanations, they often don't pan out.

MARTIN: Sergeant Briggs, what do you think? I mean, let's talk about police officers now and of course comparing data here to gear. Talking about anecdotes is generally not always the best idea. But there's one advocacy group - it's a police-oriented advocacy group that says that, you know, as of August, they say that law enforcement suicides are up by double digits since 2018. Do you, I mean, obviously you still talk to people who are on the job. You had a long career herself. Do you think something's going on, and if so, what do you think it is?

BRIGGS: I definitely think that things are going on. And yes, I do speak with a lot of law enforcement. I actually teach with the FBI and do a number of things. But what I see is officers, when they're required to do a fit-for-duty evaluation, they see the psychologist as an adversary. But I know there are studies out there, one that showed out of 830 evaluations over a five-year period, 94% of the officers were returned to duty. So this needs to get out there. And our leaders need to be involved a lot more than what they are. And for officers that are seeking mental health treatment, they have to see that as a positive sign when an officer comes in and says, you know, things aren't going quite right. They want to be better. They want to be better for themselves, for their family and for their communities. So it all starts at the top, as usual.

MARTIN: So, you know, this is a society, Sergeant Briggs, that's a lot more open about a lot of things than it used to be. I mean, just in the spirit of full disclosure, I'll just tell you I come from a policing family. I had six police officers in my family at one point. And, you know, there's a big difference between the way it was back in the day and the way it is now. I see officers on the job now with, you know, dreads. I see them with different kinds of hairstyles. I see them, you know, with different things that just would not have been tolerated, you know, years ago. But are you saying that openness to talking about issues, feelings, problems, stress, the stress of the job, you're saying that that's - that hasn't changed, that that still is something that's kind of taboo?

BRIGGS: In my opinion, yes. Absolutely. You go to a bar, you handle it, you come back and do the same thing the next day. This is what we're expected to do. It is getting better, but I think we still have a long way to go.

MARTIN: Dr. Singer, I want to pick up on something that Catherine Barber said, which is that the rates of suicide are going up among lots of groups in this society. Do you agree with that and why - what's your take on that? Why is that?

BRIGGS: I absolutely agree. And I think that, you know, understanding how the rates of suicide are going up in different groups helps us to understand the overall rise in suicide rates among youth. And so understanding that suicide is not just a white person problem but is a problem that affects all people, and that the interventions, the preventions and the postventions (ph) that we engage in have to be culturally respectful, culturally humble and address these different issues that we see in society today.

MARTIN: Well, why don't you start us off? Let's wheel it around. Like, what do you think would be helpful, Dr. Singer?

SINGER: First of all, I think that what happens is there's a cultural mistrust with the mental health providers. So we need to train faith leaders. We need to train coaches. We need to train folks who are not mental health providers to identify and respond to emotional cognitive and behavioral problems.

MARTIN: What about cops? I mean, I know that a lot of people don't have a lot of - there are some people who have a very great deal of sympathy for people in law enforcement. Just frankly, it's a difficult period in our country right now. And some people do not have a lot of sympathy for police officers right now. And is there something in this particular group you think would make a difference, would make a difference with this particular group?

BRIGGS: Sure. It starts with training in the academy. And I'm seeing that little by little, if we can start in the academy with what we call crisis intervention training and get some officers trained in that - I was speaking up in Bend, Ore., some time ago. And the chief of police there had all of his officers trained in CIT - crisis intervention training. And since he did that, he noticed a 50% reduction in the use of force. So something like that, where officers can recognize what may be going on with an individual, but also, they're also learning about themselves and when they may be in crisis and how do we not get to that level.

MARTIN: That was Sergeant Kevin Briggs. He's a former California Highway Patrol officer. He's now a mental health advocate. Catherine Barber was also with us. She's a senior researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health's Injury Research Center. And Dr. Jonathan Singer, president of the American Association of Suicidology and an associate professor of social work at Loyola University. I just want to say it again that if you're in distress or you know someone who is, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or you can text TALK to 741741. I thank you all so much for talking to us.

SINGER: Thank you.

BARBER: Thank you.

BRIGGS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.