Public Safety Suicide: The Human Dimension by Mary Van Haute and John M. Violanti is a 119-page book that is both intellectually stimulating and a sober reminder of the human tragedy of suicide within the ranks of our public safety professionals. Although not discussed in the book, the authors are well known and qualified as experts in this field. Mary Van Haute has spent the last three decades as a suicide prevention educator assisting law enforcement with the tools necessary to educate and train in the recognition and management of stress, to recognize and manage early signs of depression and suicide risk, and to erase the stigma of seeking help. John Violanti, PhD is a national expert and researcher on police stress, mortality, and suicide and was himself a former trooper for the New York State Police, later serving as a criminal investigator. In addition to his research expertise in the area, he represents the public safety professionals as a peer.
Although the book has five chapters, there is a clear division into two major sections. Chapter one written by John Violanti provides a four-page research summary of the field and chapters two through five written by Mary Van Haute detail with compassion the stories of four public safety professionals who struggled with depression and the reality of suicide. The book’s emphasis is on the impact of suicide not only to the individual but to the family, the public safety department, and the community. Public safety is an occupation that serves society often with the person placing his/her life at risk of harm from external elements; the presence of depression with the desire to commit suicide is often not recognized by family or peers. This book brings a focus to these issues that are often at times intense with emotions.
Chapter one reviews the relevant research data on police, correction officer, and firefighter suicide. Public safety has an elevated rate of suicide when compared to the population as a whole. The increased stress within the work environment is considered a major factor. There has been little research on correction officer suicide; however, research to date has indicated that there is a significant increased suicide rate when compared to police officer and the public. As with correction officer suicide, there has been limited research on firefighter suicide. It is noted in chapter one that a study by the National Volunteer Fire Council found that 25% of firefighters had considered suicide. Chapter one concludes with a reference section that offers additional reading opportunities.
Chapters two through five are structured similarly with an introduction, the individual’s story, a case study analysis, and a reference section. It is important to note that these are true stories based on interviews conducted by Mary Van Haute. The reader is provided an emotional journey into the struggle between despair and hope of the public safety professional.
For example, chapter two begins by noting that in 2012 more police officers died by suicide than in the line of duty. The chapter tells the story of police officer Chris Prochut and his wife Jenny as he descends into depression and planning for his suicide. The reader becomes interwoven into the gravity of the evolving situation seeing the depressive symptoms emerge and with the reader often desiring to reach out and intervene. Jenny’s compassionate courage to prevent her husband’s suicide resulted in his receiving the necessary treatment; she was instrumental in preventing his suicide and now has a husband who has become a renowned advocate for suicide prevention within law enforcement. In the chapter about Chris Prochut is the account of how four fellow police officers came to his rescue one night at his home after being alerted by his wife of the imminent risk of his suicide. One of those four police officers that came to prevent Chris Prochut’s suicide was Lt. Pat Freeman. The epilogue of the book sadly notes that Lt. Pat Freeman committed suicide a few years later; the resources to prevent this tragedy were not in place. The case study analysis to chapter one provides many insights including that no one is immune from a mental illness or suicide risk, mental illness does not have to be triggered by a traumatic event, knowing the signs of suicide risk can prevent a death, courageous compassion and intervention by family or friends is important, and that there remains much discomfort from peers and society with mental illness. Other chapters relate stories of firefighters and a correction officer who faced the challenge of suicide. A firefighter who died from a fire that burned within and a correction officer whose suicide note indicated that he could not love himself provides opportunities to learn about recognizing the warning signs of depression and suicide as well as interventions.
Public Safety Suicide: The Human Dimension is an outstanding book that provides the reader with a memorable journey into the reality of suicide within the public safety sector. The book is highly recommended as it provides a wealth of information for the lay person who wants to know more of this subject, the professional seeking an excellent reading resource for patients, and for the person with the despair of depression who can find hope and meaning through the struggles of others. Public safety suicide is preventable but requires a proactive approach incorporating education, training, and suicide awareness programs. The authors’ goal is to prevent any further public safety suicides and for that this book is commended.
Frank W. Brown, MD
Associate Chief Quality Officer
Emory University Hospital
Vice-Chairman of Clinical Operations
Department of Psychiatry
and Behavioral Sciences
Emory University School of Medicine
The author declares no conflict of interest.