(Trigger warning: Description of suicide. If you feel suicidal or know someone in distress, please reach out to them with kindness and call these numbers of local emergency services, helplines, and mental health NGOs)
On 7 July, Coimbatore range DIG Vijayakumar died by suicide, and days later, on 10 July, a cavalry policeman in Chennai allegedly took his own life. The consecutive alleged suicides have cast a spotlight on the need to address mental health issues in police force in Tamil Nadu.
The Quint reached out to police officers and mental health professionals to understand the issues faced by these officers, and how to address them effectively.
Dr. Lakshmi TK, senior psychologist, psychotherapist, and Founder of Mind Care India said, "Recognising and rectifying the shortcomings in mental health support systems for police officers is not only crucial for their individual welfare but also pivotal in upholding the integrity of law enforcement and nurturing a harmonious relationship with the public they serve."
"When police personnel are burdened by unaddressed mental health issues, their capacity to serve and protect can be compromised, inadvertently affecting their interactions with the very communities they are sworn to safeguard. Unbeknownst to them, the weight of their emotional struggles may manifest as unchanneled anger, leading to strained relationships, diminished trust, and a potential breakdown in the delicate bond between law enforcement and the public."Dr. Lakshmi TK, senior Psychologist, Psychotherapist, and Founder of Mind Care India
Pressures Of Being A Police Today
Constables, often at the forefront of law enforcement, face immense challenges, says Rajesh (name changed to protect identity) , a police constable from Salem.
He added, "We encounter regular exposure to crime scenes, traumatic incidents, and public unrest. The constant need to maintain public order, respond swiftly to emergencies, and navigate potentially dangerous situations places a heavy emotional burden on us."
"As constables in the lower ranks, we often find ourselves in a difficult position when it comes to requesting leave. The work pressure is relentless, and we cannot afford to demand time off like higher-ranking officers. We are expected to be available at all times, sacrificing personal needs for the greater duty. The inability to take leave and recharge creates a sense of helplessness, as we must give in to the work pressure, even when we are emotionally drained and in dire need of a break. It's a constant battle between our mental well-being and the relentless demands of our profession, leaving us facing depression and anxiety as we silently bear the burden of our responsibilities."Police Constable from Salem
'Erratic Schedule, Absence Of Duty Hours'
V Balakrishnan, Coimbatore Commisioner of Police, highlighted that erratic schedules and a lack of physical exercise take a toll on police officers' health, leading to stress-related diseases such as depression and obesity.
The absence of fixed duty hours and the expectation of being available at all times deprive officers of precious moments with their families, leading to conflicts at home. Operational requirements often necessitate a full-strength force, leaving little room for granting leave. And hence, denied leave adds to the frustration of officers, especially those who are at the entry level. This impacts their work efficiency and exacerbates the pressures they face. The burden of maintaining law and order falls heavily on the available personnel due to a lack of adequate staffing.V Balakrishnan, Coimbatore Commisioner of Police
Higher-ranking police officers, including commissioners, DSPs, and DIGs, are often confronted with a different set of challenges, said Balakrishnan.
Senior positions in police department involve managing complex operational and administrative responsibilities. The officers' roles demand them to deploy serious decision making skills in high pressure situations on a daily basis. The weight of these responsibilities, combined with long working hours and high expectations, can contribute to significant stress levels.V Balakrishnan, Coimbatore Commisioner of Police
He also added that, "They (Senior officers) bear the brunt of severe political pressures and threats from local goons. If an officer is sorted in terms of what his values are, he will not have any confusion. The problem arises when there is a constant dilemma about who to support and how he can maximise the benefit from such parties. The safety of their families is always at stake, and that burden can become overwhelming, leading some officers to see no way out", Balakrishnan said.
What Drives One Off The Edge?
"Suicide episodes are complex and can be influenced by various factors, including mental health challenges, life stressors, and personal circumstances. Even individuals who are aware of mental health support systems may struggle to reach out for help due to deeply ingrained stigmas and fears of judgment. Depression, which often plays a significant role in suicidal thoughts, can distort one's perception of their own worth and their ability to seek help. Additionally, feelings of hopelessness and the belief that their situation is insurmountable may lead individuals to withdraw and isolate themselves further."Keerthana Swaminathan, Psychologist
There is a general notion that police officers are strong and brave, so how could they resort to suicides?
Dr. Lakshmi debunks this misconception, stating, "Police officers are humans too. While there is an understanding that their job is bound to be tough, the unsolved cases, intense workloads, and regular interactions with victims and witnesses will take an emotional toll on these officers. Balancing the pursuit of justice with the realities of limited resources and societal expectations can lead to chronic stress and emotional exhaustion."
Lack of Mental Health Support Systems in Policing
Dr. Lakshmi said that police officers, burdened with the weight of responsibility, find themselves navigating treacherous waters where mental health often takes a backseat to the pressing demands of their roles. Mental health resources within police departments are often scarce or underutilized. Stigma surrounding mental health problems further compounds the issue, as officers may fear judgment or repercussions for seeking help.
Dr. Swaminathan highlighted that it's crucial for the government to collaborate with mental health experts to destigmatize seeking help and create safe and empathetic spaces. “By fostering understanding and compassion, we can encourage individuals to open up and access the support they need to navigate their journey towards healing and recovery”, she added.
Dr. Lakshmi seconded that and emphasised the need for comprehensive mental health programmes tailored specifically for police officers. "Law enforcement agencies must prioritise the psychological well-being of their personnel," Dr. Lakshmi states. "This involves implementing regular mental health check-ups, confidential counselling services, and creating a culture that encourages seeking help without judgement."
Dr. Lakshmi also said, "It is important to destigmatize mental health within police departments. Equally vital is improving training programs, incorporating mental health literacy and stress management. Robust support systems, including confidential counseling and peer networks, are essential for officers facing unique challenges. Additionally, regular mental health check-ups can proactively identify at-risk individuals, enabling timely interventions to safeguard their well-being".