Friends of the Forensic Science Club, this week we present the paper “A Systematic Review of Risk Factors Implicated in the Suicide of Police Officers”, by Krishnan, N.; Steene, L. M. B.; Lewis, M.; Marshall, D. and Ireland, J. L. (2022), in which authors carry out an investigation on previous literature about the suicide of police officers, trying to identify which are the most important risk factors.

Mental health problems are a major complication for approximately 300 million people worldwide. Within these, there are suicidal behaviors and/or suicidal ideation, which are of considerable concern to the general population, with more than 700,000 suicide deaths per year worldwide

In small communities and closed groups, such as law enforcement, physicians, or emergency service workers, the immediate and long-term impacts of suicide can be exacerbated by the “ripple” effect that can occur from witnessing trauma firsthand. 

Data from the UK Office for National Statistics, shows that there have been a total of 169 suicides by police officers between 2011 and 2019, averaging approximately 21 deaths per year. 

Taking global statistics into account and comparing them with UK law enforcement statistics, some researchers have described the phenomenon in the latter context as an “epidemic” of great severity.

Despite these strong claims, other authors have questioned the classification of suicide as the leading cause of death among law enforcement officers. Problems in the assessment and collection of suicide statistics make accurate estimation of the problem increasingly difficult. 

Regardless of whether police officers experience higher rates of suicide compared with the general population, it is also of concern because officers are assumed to receive, at least in the United Kingdom (the context of this study), adequate support through training, health-related benefits, and counseling. 

Therefore, authors decided, in this study, to investigate the risk factors and predictors underpinning suicide in this population group

While general expert consensus holds that suicide causation is multidimensional, the literature reports three keys, or three particular levels of stressors believed to be involved in completed suicide in law enforcement personnel: first, personal or individual stressors appear; then, occupational factors; finally, organizational problems

Personal stressors refer to factors internal to the officer, such as mental disorders or substance use. Occupational factors refer to the demands that are considered part of the job, such as interacting with victims and offenders of crime and interacting with the justice system. And organizational issues include concerns about how little support they may receive at times, bureaucratic duties, and lack of career advancement opportunities in certain contexts. All of these can increase the likelihood of suicidal behavior. 

To delve further into the topic, authors decided to investigate previous literature related to suicides and police officers, in order to further expand information on risk factors. 

Five apparent determinants were revealed: problematic substance use at a time close to death, the presence of depression and previous suicide attempts, differences in the response to trauma they may experience, excessive and prolonged exposure to work-related stress, and the absence of a stable intimate relationship. When these factors coexist, they appear to be associated with an increased likelihood of suicidal behaviors. 

40% of the included studies identified problematic substance use as pervasive and directly related. More specifically, the findings indicated an increasing trajectory of substance use in the days and hours prior to the suicidal event. 

Mental health problems, most particularly depressive disorders and previous suicide attempts, were identified by the majority of police studies (50%). Interestingly, female officers reported higher depression scores compared to males.

Contradictory findings were also found that suggest the need for further research on the subject, since, in a 2004 study, the idea was proposed that officers with more years in police service were less susceptible to trauma-related stress and, therefore, to suicidal tendencies, but there is another view, which is the most predominant one, and holds that people exposed to multiple traumatic episodes are more likely to present symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

On the other hand, it seems that having a partner is not enough for it to be considered a protective factor, but that the quality of the relationship is the key, and what actually provides the protective function. 

As we can see, there are some findings that coincide, but others that can generate great debate, so the authors suggest continuing to investigate and study this topic, so that light can continue to be shed on it and, consequently, to prevent it.

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