Skip to main content

Cops, suicide and a father's cause

By Brian Cahill, Special to CNN
updated 7:28 AM EDT, Fri March 29, 2013
San Jose police Officer John Cahill in 2006. His death led his father, Brian, to become a police suicide prevention trainer.
San Jose police Officer John Cahill in 2006. His death led his father, Brian, to become a police suicide prevention trainer.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Brian Cahill became a suicide prevention trainer after his son, a police officer, killed himself
  • About 145 cops commit suicide a year, he says. Thousands have PTSD and depression
  • Cahill: Cops see traumatic stuff every day. What helps them on the job can harm them at home
  • Cahill: Police departments need to teach officers to recognize trauma and provide help

Editor's note: Brian Cahill is the retired executive director of San Francisco Catholic Charities. He is a volunteer suicide prevention trainer with the San Francisco Police Department. He writes occasionally for the San Francisco Chronicle and the National Catholic Reporter.

(CNN) -- On the evening of December 3, 2008, John Francis Cahill, a police officer for 19 years, walked up a trail in California's Santa Cruz Mountains. He stopped, took out a .40-caliber Glock semi-automatic handgun and shot himself in the temple. He was 42 years old. He was the father of two daughters. He was my firstborn son.

Most Americans are aware of the high rate of suicide among soldiers. Less attention has been paid to those who protect us on the home front.

Brian Cahill
Brian Cahill

The Badge of Life, a group of former cops dedicated to preventing police suicide, reports that about 145 police officers take their lives every year, twice the number of cops killed by felons.

The rate of police suicides is more than 1½ times the rate of the general population. The Badge of Life also reports that for every suicide, a thousand working cops suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and another thousand struggle with serious depression, marital problems or substance abuse.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



My son had been through a painful divorce and was distraught about the failure of his marriage, his financial problems and the possible impact of the divorce on his youngest daughter. Only after losing my son did I learn how susceptible cops are to suicide.

Kevin Gilmartin, a former Arizona police officer turned clinical psychologist, wrote a book called "Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement," and consults with the FBI and police agencies around the country. His main message is that cops can never let their guard down, that the very things that make cops safe and effective on the job can cause great harm in their personal and family life, and in some cases, destroy them.

Gilmartin writes vividly of the dangers of the "hypervigilance biological roller-coaster," where officers on duty are "alive, alert, energetic, involved and humorous," but when off duty, are "tired, detached, isolated and apathetic." He points out that hypervigilance on the job produces a healthy amount of cynicism and mistrust, which is necessary for street survival, but off the job, can be destructive for emotional survival and relationships with family and loved ones.

Only after losing my son did I learn how susceptible cops are to suicide.
Brian Cahill

Good cops create control out of chaos, and are willing to risk everything during a critical incident, which is usually short-lived. But when a cop gets depressed, these professional habits can become lethal. Cops don't do well when they can't control their situation or the source of their depression, and they begin to despair when they see that their problem -- the "critical incident" -- is never-ending.

That's what happened to John. He told me how frustrating it was not to be in control, and he often told me, "This will never end." He went from depression to despair.

I believe he was convinced that everyone would be better off if he was gone. John and I were close. I knew he was struggling, but my perception of him as secure and healthy never allowed me to imagine he could end his own life.

Ellen Kirschman, a psychologist, police trainer, and author of "I Love a Cop," writes about the paradox between an officer's work life and personal life, and how police work changes people.

She emphasizes that cops are oriented toward control and details situations that lead to suicide, including, "family conflicts, relationship losses, depression, immediate access to guns, poor coping skills, financial difficulties, shame, failure and a distorted but culturally correct sense of invincibility and independence."

Kirschman defines trauma as a normal reaction to an abnormal event, an emotional reaction that can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts. A police officer can be traumatized by many events that are abnormal or infrequent in other people's lives: shootings, a civilian getting severely injured in a police action, a child's death, a violent confrontation, a bad car crash or a gory crime scene.

John Violanti, a former New York state trooper, is a public health professor who has extensively researched police suicide. He is the co-editor of "Police Suicide: Tactics for Prevention," which advocates peer support and stress management programs and emphasizes the importance of mental health treatment and a culture in which asking for help is not seen as a poor career move or a sign of weakness.

I tell them John's story ... and stress that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.
Brian Cahill

The Badge of Life promotes "emotional self-care training," with the idea that every officer is a potential trauma victim. The members believe suicide prevention programs are crucial, but argue that departments must go beyond that to train officers to recognize trauma in themselves, to manage stress, to become resilient, and to understand the value of healthy lifestyles, including exercise.

My son was the second San Jose police officer to commit suicide in 2008. As a result, the San Jose Police Department started to require agency-wide training. The department told its officers that if they were depressed and feeling suicidal, they could come in confidentially, receive counseling and keep their jobs. In the year after John died, 12 officers came in, got help and stayed on the job.

The San Francisco Police Department lost three officers to suicide in 2010. Today, the SFPD's advanced officer training program includes a two-hour session on trauma, depression, substance abuse, suicide and the value of an annual, voluntary mental health checkup, not unlike an annual physical.

As part of that training, I speak each week to 30 officers. I tell them John's story, summarize the research on police suicide, tell them that the very things that make them effective as cops can be destructive in their personal lives, and stress that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. When I'm back in my car I usually fall apart, revisiting the horror of four years ago. But I know I'm honoring my son by doing this.

The California Highway Patrol has also aggressively addressed suicide prevention. But too many other police departments across the nation, even as they invest heavily in training in weapons use, tactics and physical safety, are not acknowledging the hidden risks of police work and protecting those who protect the rest of us.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Brian Cahill.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT