This toolkit aims to help senior leadership in police forces to support staff after the loss of a colleague to suicide. It may also be adapted to support staff who lose a family member or close friend outside the force to suicide.
Police officers and staff from different roles across the service, as well as membership organisations, have contributed their insights and experiences to the development of this toolkit. We have also used good practice from other sectors and organisations including the ambulance service.
- Who should read this toolkit?
- Why is postvention important?
- The need for postvention in the police service
- Grief after suicide
- How to use this toolkit
Section 2 - be prepared
- Tackle stigma around suicide
- Form a postvention group
- Agree your postvention approach
- What to do: immediately
- What to do: next 48 hours
- What to do: the following weeks and months
- Managing the risk to other employees
- Supporting and attending the funeral
- Helping staff who want to ‘do something’
- Reinforce and build trust in leadership
- Getting back to ‘normal’
What to do in your force
Tackle stigma around suicide
There is still a huge amount of stigma surrounding suicide, and as a result people can be hesitant to discuss it. If attending suicides is seen to be just ‘part of the job’ but too taboo to talk about at work, people may be less likely to seek support if they are feeling suicidal or if a colleague dies by suicide. Therefore, it’s critical, even in the absence of an employee death, to destigmatise the discussion of suicide.
No one in the force has ever sat me down and said: ‘what did you feel, what led you to attempt to take your own life, what could we have done differently?’ They refer to the period as ‘my sabbatical’. We talk about wellbeing but we have such a long way to go to tackle the taboo and normalise the conversation around suicide.
Here are some things you can do now to help create a working culture that helps to destigmatise mental health and suicide and where conversation is encouraged.
- Use the opportunity of suicide awareness days to talk about suicide.
- Share voices and experiences of people within the service who have personal experience of suicide and are keen to use this to help break down barriers.
- Consider fundraising for mental health and suicide prevention charities as part of employee fundraising initiatives.
- Organise training on a range of topics from peer support to managing conversations around suicide.
- Encourage staff to complete Zero Suicide Alliance training. This 20-minute online tool is free to use and gives people a basic awareness of suicide prevention. Samaritans also offer workplace staff training.
- Find out more about Samaritans training and how to take the Zero Suicide Alliance training.
Form a postvention planning group
Postvention support does not belong with one rank or team. Collaboration and cross-working are key to building the best possible response, providing the right support to colleagues and managing the impact on the service.
Identify individuals within your force who will act as a postvention planning group.
These will likely include:
- gold command
- leads from HR, health and wellbeing, occupational health (OH), chaplaincy, and communications
- operational officers such as sergeants - ideally peer support and mental health trained
- a representative from the local staff association or federation
- someone with personal experience of suicide bereavement (in or outside of work) who will have a strong understanding of postvention needs
These individuals will be responsible for postvention planning before a suicide occurs. In the event of a suicide, they will also likely have a role in implementing the plan and in supporting those in direct contact with affected colleagues.
Make sure the postvention group members are clearly identified and that they understand the duties assigned to them and others across the service.
Agree your postvention approach
Convene the group and discuss postvention-related issues that are important in your force.
This should include:
- what your response structure or process will be: Gold command/ critical incident etc.
- your individual roles and responsibilities
- what procedures, support, and resources you already have in place
- how you will support staff at all levels
- specifically, how you will support the operational lead or individual managing the process on the ground - will you put in place peer support or a buddy?
- whether you will need to source external expertise, such as suicide bereavement counselling, if wellbeing or OH services are at capacity or not specialist enough
- operational needs and how to cover short and longer-term staff absences from frontline duties while delivering business as usual
- communications cascade, balancing the need for open and transparent communications with all staff with compassion for those bereaved, the wishes of the family, and confidentiality
- what your family support model will be, helping families with practical matters, supporting them to access financial support and bereavement help, the role of the family liaison representative and or federation representative, an exit strategy
- how you will allow for some accommodation in your usual workplace behaviour and continue to identify, monitor, and support those most affected as the weeks and months go by
- training, if necessary, for all those responsible for postvention support
Support for employees
Given the nature of policing, it’s common for employees not to seek help when they need it. There can be a sense that they need to battle through and not let their colleagues down. This risks letting issues that could be addressed with early intervention go unchecked and reach crisis point. Encouraging a culture where it’s OK to ask for help and ensuring that these requests are heard is critical in creating a healthy working environment and retaining staff over the long-term.
This is an ongoing task for senior management and all those responsible for the workforce.
I was having panic attacks, my hands were going numb, l’d lose my vision. People knew something wasn’t right but no-one acted on it. The first referral I had was after I attempted suicide. We need to actively approach people. I didn’t know what was wrong with me but I was withdrawing from everything and not keeping on top of my workload which was not like me the warning signs were there. We need to look out for each other and encourage and promote self-care.
Support for managers
Managers are often at the heart of the response to an employee’s suicide. They will be responsible for seamless operations so that the day-to-day work of a busy force continues. They will be talking with their teams to make sure that emotional support is being offered in a timely and appropriate way.
Yet they may also be deeply affected by the sudden death of a colleague but feel unable to express that grief. Assigning someone to provide peer support to the operational lead (similar to a tactical advisor but with understanding of postvention) is recommended.
When I was en route to give the death warning to the deceased parents I got a phone call from the Superintendents Association to say: ‘are you ok’? That was good and supportive. A few days after, the Chief came to the district to see my boss, made a point of thanking me. Even just saying something helps you to know that someone is thinking of you.
Who is best to support the manager?
This person may have experience of responding to the suicide of an employee previously but should not be a close contact or colleague of the person who has died. Their role is to provide help and support to the manager at this challenging time. They may also support on operational planning or the ‘day to day’ work if the manager is struggling to deliver this.
Support for families
Support for the family often starts with the death warning. Deciding who takes on this role and that of ongoing liaison and support is important. In the days following a suicide, discussions with the family are likely to be about sharing the news, and what police involvement, if any, they want with the funeral and practical matters.
Some forces have found it helpful to have a family liaison role specific to one individual. This role will likely differ in its purpose to the usual family liaison officer. It is important that this person is trained and feels comfortable with what may be difficult conversations. Some knowledge of complex bereavement by suicide, as well as an understanding of how to talk about suicide is essential. Being prepared for how a family might react is also important, there may be a great deal of anger and blame around the death. Whatever the circumstances it is crucial that the family’s wishes are respected.
I went to the scene and next of kin to do the death warning. I did wonder if I was too senior, giving an enhanced level of service? But on the other hand, they are one of ours and we have that duty of care as their employer.
When you have agreed your postvention team, plan and approach – and when you have discussed your own specific requirements, policies and protocols – you can develop explainers, checklists and processes for sharing with managers on your force intranet.
The following sections will help you to further consider what to include in your plan and in these shared documents.