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Trauma and Suicide Psychoeducation: A Brief Insight to Suicide Psychological Autopsies

Trauma and Suicide Psychoeducation: A Brief Insight to Suicide Psychological Autopsies

In the world of law enforcement there is no denying that active-duty officers are living through very challenging times. Police and other first responder suicides continue to be on the rise. The daily impacts of the job combined with various non-job related factors can have devastating effects that result in first responders feeling hopelessness and despair. Statistically, it is more likely that a police officer will die by suicide than being killed in the line of duty (Ruderman White Paper, 2018). We train hard on our tactics to perform our jobs, yet more of our lives are taken by our own gun. The same guns that are the tools we hold to protect ourselves and the public with.

As reflected on coming on the job as young as 23 years old, my family and friends were very aware of the dangers associated with doing police work. They were terrified of the risk that I would get shot and killed in what became a career spent on the South Side of Chicago. The majority of my career was spent working afternoons. It wasn’t long before I realized that suicide was a greater threat and a silent killer from seeing police officers take their lives by suicide. After a year on the job, and multiple suicides of fellow officers, I started to pay attention to the chatter and reactions expressed by fellow officers. It became very clear to me that not only were WE, as police officers uneducated about suicide and all that it entails, but we were also trying to make sense of something that comprised of many interconnected layers. We are always looking for a single cause to answer why this happens.

I began my journey in graduate studies in Forensic Psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and later immersed myself into the field of suicide psychological autopsies. I would then go on to get trained and certified as a Suicide Psychological Autopsy Investigator. The ability to take a suicide case of an officer and psychologically dissect it to discover how an individual’s suicidal ideation manifested itself from beginning to end, was knowledge that had been missing. This information would allow us to understand the behaviors and thought processes as well as the lived experiences to be able to determine why this tragedy had occurred.

The Psychological Suicide Autopsies are meant to answer 3 questions: Why Suicide? Why that day? Why those means? As we interview the various individuals closest to the deceased officer/first responder we are able to gather vital information that provides a narrative to better understand what occurred in this individual`s life. Information such as trauma, alcohol use/abuse, sleep deprivation, stress, interpersonal relationships, finances, coping skills, physical health, legal troubles, mental health issues, Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI), and the mismanaged use of psychotropic medications are key pieces of information that portray how an individual reached this point in their life. After gathering all of the data we are able to piece together and understand all of the risk factors that were present and how the decedent struggled with pain, lacked resources, experienced diminished or absent protective factors (such as support systems), psychological and physiological disturbances etc. Although the psych autopsy will not change the outcome, it does give some closure to family and friends and most importantly it gives us the opportunity to learn from these tragedies.

After an extensive written report, we are able to comprehend suicide in more depth. As a Police Officer and a Mental Health professional, along with conducting various suicide psychological autopsies, I have been able to develop a curriculum on First Responder Trauma and Suicide Psychoeducation. Upon this development, I submitted and received approval for my curriculum by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board (ILETSB), which is available to provide training state wide to agencies in Illinois, with the goal to expand to nationally. This psychoeducation will offer law enforcement and other first responders a proactive approach to better cope with trauma and suicide. Just as we are trained intensely on firearms and defensive tactics to do our job, we need to learn how to effectively process trauma from the job and advocate for each ourselves and each other before crisis leads to suicide. As first responders we tend to be reactive because its’s the nature of our job, however we cannot continue this pattern when it comes to our self-care and suicide risk. Psychoeducation will provide first responders with the knowledge and proper skills to self-advocate for themselves and attain the resources available to them.

How we respond to suicide has become a cycle of insanity. When An officer dies by suicide we are horrified, shocked, and left with disbelief and painful questions. Everyone agrees that we need to do something about this problem. And yet approximately 5-7 days after the officer has been laid to rest, we are all back to business as usual, until the next suicide and the cycle repeats itself. Sound familiar? No doubt, suicide and suicide prevention are not easy conversations to have especially for first responders. However, avoiding it has not especially worked either! It is time to start the very real discussion on suicide and fill the knowledge gap for first responders. First responders perform their duties best when they are well equipped with tools to do their jobs. The same tools should be provided for their psychological well-being by providing them with Trauma and Suicide Psychoeducation.


Elizabeth Pol, M.A. Chicago Police Officer -active 20 years
Mental Health Professional Trauma and Suicide Psychoeducation
Certified Suicide Psychological Autopsy Investigator
Northern Illinois Critical Incident Stress Management Team (NICISM)
International Critical Incident Stress Management (ICISF) – Peer Support Certified
(773) 842-9784


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