A cluster of police suicides this month highlights a mental health crisis among first responders
When I obtained my #EMT certification in 2003, I was warned that sudden deaths experienced by children would bother me and that I should ask for a debriefing on what to expect. That was the extent of my #mentalhealtheducation. Over the next 10 years, I had my fair share of work-related ups and downs. But the issue of first responder #mentalhealth became personal when one of my coworkers died by #suicide five years ago.
When talking about his death with a group of friends, we realized that, between us, we knew several first responders who had died by #suicide. This prompted me to start researching the relationship between #suicide, #mentalhealth, and #firstresponders. What I found made me realize there were some serious issues in my profession that weren’t being talked about.
In the United States, more first responders die by suicide than in the line of duty each year. In a 10-day period this month, three NYPD officers, a Philadelphia sheriff’s LGBTQ liaison, and four other first responders in Michigan, Minnesota, California, and Nevada have died by #suicide. And as of June 19, there have been 97 law enforcement #suicides verified by Blue HELP for 2019. An additional 46 fire/EMS #suicides have been verified by the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance.
And these numbers only reflect confirmed #suicides. The current estimate is that fire/EMS #suicides are being undercounted by as much as 60 percent.
We know from studies in both the US and Canada that first responders also have elevated rates of #post-traumaticstressdisorder, #depression, #anxiety, and alcohol use disorder when compared to the general population.
If you or anyone you know is considering #suicide or self-harm or is #anxious, #depressed, upset, or needs to talk, there are people who want to help:
In the US:
Crisis Text Line: Text START to 741741 from anywhere in the USA, at any time, about any type of crisis
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386
Outside the US:
#Firstresponders are warned from day one our jobs will not be easy and we’ll have to see things no person should ever have to see. But our training focuses on physical safety. One of the first things we’re taught is “scene safe, BSI,” which stands for body substance isolation, meaning that #firstresponders need to be wearing protective gear at all times. It is drilled into us that scene safety is dynamic and we have to be prepared for danger at any moment should anyone become violent or have a weapon.
What we aren’t told is that we need to protect our #mentalhealth, too. Research shows that chronic workplace stress has a more significant impact on first responder mental health than critical incidents such as officer-involved shootings or pediatric cardiac arrests. Chronic workplace stress is triggered by difficult work schedules, a chronic lack of sleep, and inadequate equipment, but it also includes more insidious issues.
Research comparing the experiences of female firefighters to male firefighters has shown that a majority of female firefighters have endured isolation and harassment at work. Female #firefighters who experience the highest rates of workplace harassment also experience the most severe #PTSD symptoms. A study of over 2,000 professional female firefighters found that more than 70 percent of them reported hearing supervisors and coworkers use slurs against ethnic minorities, gays, and lesbians.
Study after study shows the same result regarding social support and perceived belonging. They are two of the most important factors for reducing symptoms of both traumatic stress and chronic stress in first responders. Furthermore, a handful of studies have shown that support from supervisors can have a more significant effect on symptoms of trauma than support from peers.
Welcome to the “next chapter” of my life… being a voice and an advocate for #mentalhealthawarenessandsuicideprevention, especially pertaining to our younger generation of students and student-athletes.
Getting men to speak up and reach out for help and assistance is one of my passions. Us men need to not suffer in silence or drown our sorrows in alcohol, hang out at bars and strip joints, or get involved with drug use.
Having gone through a recent bout of #depression and #suicidalthoughts myself, I realize now, that I can make a huge difference in the lives of so many by sharing my story, and by sharing various resources I come across as I work in this space. #http://bit.ly/JamesMentalHealthArticle
Given this information, it is critical that department leaders are willing to initiate conversations about #mentalhealth and foster an environment where employees don’t feel ostracized — for any reason, be it because of a #mentalhealth diagnosis, their gender, sexuality, or religion. The evidence is clear that behavior that ostracizes people has a direct negative impact on their ability to cope with the stresses of being a first responder. Field employees also need to be willing to step up and call out #stigmatizing behavior and attitudes when they see it.
While in recent years there has been increased emphasis on reducing #firstresponder deaths from heart disease, cancer, and traffic safety incidents, we need to make sure that as an industry we are putting just as much effort into reducing first responder deaths by #suicide.
Shortly after my coworker died, my friends and I launched a storytelling project through our advocacy group, which gave first responders an outlet to talk about their #mentalhealthissues anonymously. In five years, around 700 stories have been submitted to Code Green. One firefighter wrote about their struggles with #PTSD and #depression, which led to excessive drinking. Another EMS medic who has spent 15 years working in the field wrote about a #suicide attempt.
We’ve also provided #mentalhealtheducation to first responders in 26 states and one Canadian province, provided crisis referrals for #mentalhealthcare, and built a database of culturally competent #mentalhealthresources for first responders to make it easier for them to access suitable #mentalhealthcare.
On days when there are headlines like “Three NYPD officers dead by #suicide in less than 10 days,” it can feel like nothing has been accomplished. However, I know that isn’t the case. Progress is being made, even if it lags behind that of other safety initiatives. We can’t bring back those we’ve lost, but we can keep working to look out for ourselves and each other in order to avoid losing any more.
Ann Marie Farina is the executive director of The Code Green Campaign. Code Green is a nonprofit organization focused on first responder mental health education and advocacy. She holds an Associates of Applied Science in Paramedicine from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Central Washington University.