New Documentary Addresses Stress, Suicide Among Police Officers

by | December 31, 2014

By Mari A. Schaefer

About a year ago, Philadelphia Police Chaplain Luis Centeno was approached by Stephen McWilliams, who teaches a social documentary film class at Villanova University.

McWilliams was initially interested in profiling the chaplain, but as they talked, both began to see a more meaningful project -- about a dark secret, one few law enforcement officers are willing to openly talk about.

Suicide.

The collaboration led to this to the release this fall of BLUE, a 40-minute documentary chronicling the occupational hazards of the job, and a related app to help officers identify and address the signs.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who figures prominently in the documentary, said officers too often fear that admitting they have behavioral health issues could cost them their jobs. He said it is time to start talking about the subject and get officers any treatment they need.

"I want to see them get help," Ramsey said. The issue "is not just about Philadelphia, it is about policing across the United States."

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) estimates that twice as many law enforcement officers take their lives each year as die in duty-related traffic accidents or assaults. For every successful suicide by an officer, there are as many as 25 attempts, their report indicates.

Between 2003 and 2013, there were 17 suicides among Philadelphia officers, Centeno said, but he was able to help 21 other officers who contemplated taking their own lives. And late this summer, officers from Lower Providence Township, Radnor Township, and Darby Borough committed suicide in a three-week period.

The film and app debuted in October at the IACP convention in Orlando. In early December, BLUE was featured at the Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association at their annual symposium in San Antonio, Texas.

"Officer suicide is one of our major priorities," said Ian Hamilton, project manager for IACP. "The video complements what we are doing."

The film was directed by Matthew Marencik and produced by McWilliams and John Stefanic. It is set primarily in the 24th and 25th police districts of Philadelphia, and shows the stress police encounter daily. Interviews with Centeno, Ramsey and beat cops are interspersed with those of officers who have considered suicide and family members whose loved ones have taken their lives.

The free app contains the documentary, an IACP report on law enforcement suicides, Breaking the Silence, and a self-assessment tool that gives the user feedback on his or her own mental health. The tool guides users through a series of questions on mood, depression, issues with sleeping or eating, alcohol issues to help determine their risk for problems.

When the confidential questionnaire is completed, the user receives a customized evaluation -- and a little advice -- based on the answers. Users also receive a list of places to get help, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Once the user completes the assessment, the results vanish, said Mark A. Anthony, CEO of Polaris Health Directions, a Wayne company that specializes in behavioral health assessment that helped created the app.

"This is about giving back and helping people," he said.

Said McWilliams: "We are giving it away to cops all over the county."

By using a combination of a documentary and technology, the app has created a way for users to become emotionally attached to the subjects in the film and interested in the topic of suicide in a way that a written story alone could not, Stefanic said.

The hope is that officers at risk will open up to someone who can help them, such as a priest, rabbi, or mental health professional, he said.

Others involved in creating the app include the Anthony Group, Point Guard Media, Voveo Marketing, and Enable Consulting. The group has partnered with IACP and plans are in the works to make the app more interactive, and add material that touches on subjects such as substance abuse, domestic violence, job stress and divorce, Anthony said.

Ramsey said BLUE is not only for officers but can be used by their families or the general public.

"Hopefully it will save lives," Ramsey said.

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer