Prevention Attention

NJSPBA Clinical Services Team unveils its newly developed presentation to give members a greater sense about suicide awareness and prevention

By Esther Gonzales

Recent conversations among NJSPBA mental health clinicians raised an important question: What kind of information about raising suicide awareness is getting out to members?

So, as National Suicide Prevention Month in September approached, the team of clinicians met with NJSPBA Peer Response Team Coordinator Luke Sciallo to see what they could do to further educate members about what continues to cause law enforcement officers to take their own lives at an unprecedented rate. And how to make members more equipped to not want to pull that trigger.

“We’re still dying at our own hand at a much higher rate than we’re dying in the line of duty,” explained Stacy Pytal, a licensed psychologist and former law enforcement officer. “This is a huge problem, but it needs to be tackled. It needs to be addressed, and it needs to be brought out into the light so people can step forward if they are having these thoughts.”

After extensive research was done, the desire to raise awareness evolved into a stimulating 21-page presentation titled “Suicide Awareness.” Sciallo and the NJSPBA Clinical Services Team are preparing to share this vital material with members soon at various police departments across the state. And they hope to use this information to implement quarterly training sessions.

“You don’t get to that dark place overnight, and you’re not drinking because it tastes good,” Sciallo added. “I want our officers to know it’s OK to not be OK. And with the team of therapists, clinicians and doctors that we have, there’s nobody better [to raise awareness]. So why not develop our own program? This was a place to start.”

One aspect of the NJSPBA Clinical Services Team’s new suicide awareness presentation covers various coping mechanisms.

A first glance at the presentation reveals an agenda of conversations reviewing facts and figures, risk factors and what to do when talking to an officer with suicidal ideations. Members will be presented statistics from the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale, a scale created by Columbia University researchers to evaluate suicide risk; get a briefing on the many resources available if they are having those thoughts; and learn best practices for coping mechanisms, such as guided meditation, muscle relaxation and mind distractions ranging from Sudoku to digital puzzles.

And NJSPBA clinicians plan to use those coping skills to highlight the importance of a balanced physical and mental lifestyle.

“Mental health and emotional health are as important as physical health,” expressed Larissa Mason, a clinical expert on professional mental health and individual resiliency regarding law enforcement and first responders. “You have to have your gear on for the job, but being able to decompress at the end of the shift is just as important.”

The clinical services team acknowledged the gap in training when it comes to mental health. This presentation is intended to bridge that gap — to let members know they are not alone and break the stigma attached to asking for help.

“If I had my way, I would put a lot of this information right at the beginning of the academy, right when you’re becoming a cop and have to pass your PT test,” Mason expressed. “So that members understand how important mental health is, because you can know what you’re signing up for, but your brain can’t wear a bulletproof vest.”

During the research process, NJSPBA clinicians found that with the rise in anti-police rhetoric and widespread anti-police protests since 2020, the number of law enforcement officers dying by suicide has dramatically increased. They wanted a newly created, highly engaging and memorable way to bring this to members’ attention.

“In comparing the numbers, and officers much more likely to die by suicide than die in the line of duty, it became very, very important for us as a clinical team to put together a presentation,” related Ana Pais, a certified first responder counselor. “And to be able to go around to different departments and just provide some education on the risks of suicide, as well as what they can do essentially to get help.”

The presentation also addresses the general risk factors for those who are likely to have suicidal ideations.

While planning what this presentation would entail, the clinical services team chose to address the risk factors unique to law enforcement officers.

These factors include an accumulation of chronic stress, significant financial strain and the current political climate toward law enforcement. Mason has seen these factors ultimately lead to feelings of hopelessness, which she describes as feelings of helplessness rising from not seeing working conditions getting better.

“We want to address the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, which are also sometimes the remnants of complex trauma, which they get exposed to on the job,” Mason commented. “We want to normalize mental health resilience and caretaking, like you would your physical body.”

Pytal added that a common phrase she hears from friends and colleagues of an officer who dies by suicide is “We didn’t see that coming at all.” She shared that not only are the clinicians encouraging members to check on their brothers’ or sisters’ mental health, but also to check their own. And to remember that what is happening in the present is temporary.

Perhaps most important, this presentation will cover what to say or not to say to someone who is having suicidal ideations, what the next steps are and how to use direct language.

“We can have all the warning signs, but then if we don’t know how to approach someone we suspect may be struggling, then nothing is going to be done,” Pais affirmed. “We wanted to spend a lot of time being able to provide them with resources that could help. How do you essentially have a conversation around suicide? What does that look like? What it comes down to is really starting to be comfortable with the topic and addressing it very directly.”

This presentation is intended to energize members, whether by breaking the stigma, raising awareness of suicide prevention or giving a voice to members who are struggling.

“I think it’s always been a presentation that needed to be heard and always has been heard,” Sciallo shared. “Everybody talks about suicide awareness, and there’s no perfect way to stop suicide. We’re just trying to do whatever we can to curtail it.”

At the end of the presentation, members receive important reminders on dealing with someone who has suicidal ideations and what to do next.

Pytal is ultimately hoping that this presentation will be a message of hope to members to remind them they are truly not alone.

“The impact can be twofold,” Pytal commented. “If we can prevent one person from completing suicide, the mission has been accomplished. But also, for the person that is speaking with the person who’s suicidal, not to make them feel so alone. Very often, we do have to be open to the depths of their despair, because we need to let people know that they’re heard.”

And Pais reiterated why a presentation like this is so important for members.

“It ultimately gives them the confidence to reach out for help before it becomes a feeling of ‘I don’t have any other option,’” Pais added. “I’m really hoping that this presentation will increase the conversation among members. And that it normalizes this, because it is happening, and it’s happening at very high rates.”