NYPD Suicide Epidemic Is Urban Myth
94% of Police Suicides Use Guns
Marital Problems, Alcoholism Most Common Causes
Dec 19, 2002
Disproving a widely held belief and a common urban myth, a new NewYork Weill Cornell Medical Center study shows that New York City police officers are less likely to commit suicide than the average New York City citizen. The most common causes of police suicide are marital problems and alcoholism; age, race, years of service, and rank were not determining factors. By far, the most common suicide method was death by gun. The study, which looked at 20 years of police deaths, appears in this month's American Journal of Psychiatry.
The rate of police suicide was 14.9 per 100,000 persons, compared to a suicide rate of 18.3 per 100,000 persons for New York City residents as a whole, the study shows. The total yearly suicide rate for police officers was less than that of the city for 17 of 20 years, for the period 1977-1996.
"While every suicide is a tragedy and prevention programs are still a very appropriate response, it is reassuring to know that there is no epidemic of suicide among New York City police officers," said Dr. Peter M. Marzuk, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, Associate Attending Psychiatrist at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, and the study's lead author.
Dr. Marzuk speculates that this misconception may be due to greater publicity surrounding police suicide. In 1994, a sharp rise in city police suicides resulted in national attention and fears of a "hidden epidemic." The Weill Cornell study has shown that this one-year increase was a statistical anomaly. While the annual suicide rate among police officers varied year-to-year, there were no identifiable trends.
"It is unclear why the suicide rate for police officers is less than that of the city," says Dr. Marzuk. "Explanatory factors may include the Police Department's psychological screening and that police recruits are predisposed to tolerate high stress levels."
Unlike the police suicide rate as a whole, the study found that female police officers had a higher risk of suicide than female residents of New York City. But as the number of female police suicides was statistically small, any conclusive gender-associated determination would require further research.
The authors reviewed death certificates of the 668 active New York City police officers who died from 1977 through 1996. Of those, 80 were suicides, with a median age of 33 years. Almost 94 percent of the suicides used a firearm; other methods included hanging, carbon monoxide poisoning, and falling from a height. Marital problems, alcoholism, and job suspensions were the most important characteristics associated with police suicide.
Police suicide-prevention presents both opportunities and challenges, the study says. The New York City Police Department and its police union have sponsored counseling programs for officers. However, barriers to treatment remain formidable, as officers worry that psychiatric evaluation can result in job sanctions, reassignment, restriction of firearm privilege, missed promotions, and stigmatization.
The study made use of a sophisticated methodology that accounted for demographic differences between the police population and the greater city population. White males are known to be more susceptible to suicide; because the Police Department historically has a greater percentage of this population than the city, the scientists made adjustments in order to account for the gender and racial composition of the department.
Additional studies may look at occupational risk for suicide in similar high-stress jobs such as firefighter and EMS worker. Curiously, however, there is some existing data to indicate that particular job or work may not be correlated to suicide at all, but more research is necessary.
In addition to Dr. Marzuk, the study was authored by Dr. Andrew C. Leon, Dr. Kenneth Tardiff, Dr. Matthew K. Nock, and Dr. Laura Portera—all affiliated with Weill Cornell at the time of the study. The study was funded by a grant from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.