A white paper commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation has revealed that first responders (policemen and firefighters) are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. In 2017, there were at least 103 firefighter suicides and 140 police officer suicides. In contrast, 93 firefighters and 129 police officers died in the line of duty. Suicide is a result of mental illness, including depression and PTSD, which stems from constant exposure to death and destruction.
The white paper study, the Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders, examines a number of factors contributing to mental health issues among first responders and what leads to their elevated rate of suicide. One study included in the white paper found that on average, police officers witness 188 ‘critical incidents’ during their careers. This exposure to trauma can lead to several forms of mental illness. For example, PTSD and depression rates among firefighters and police officers have been found to be as much as 5 times higher than the rates within the civilian population, which causes these first responders to commit suicide at a considerably higher rate (firefighters: 18/100,000; police officers: 17/100,000; general population 13/100,000). Even when suicide does not occur, untreated mental illness can lead to poor physical health and impaired decision-making.
In addition, the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) estimates that approximately 40% of firefighter suicides are reported. If these estimates are accurate, the actual number of 2017 suicides would be approximately equal to 257, which is more than twice the number of firefighters who died in the line of duty.
“First responders are heroes who run towards danger every day in order to save the lives of others. They are also human beings, and their work exerts a toll on their mental health,” said Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “It is our obligation to support them in every way possible – to make sure that they feel welcome and able to access life-saving mental health care. This white paper should serve as a critical call to action to all who care about our heroes in red and blue.”
The white paper also goes on to lay out several barriers that prevent first responders from accessing necessary mental health services to help them cope with trauma. Experts describe the shame and stigma surrounding mental health within professions that prioritize bravery and toughness, and the public remains largely unaware of these issues, since the vast majority of first responder suicides are not covered by the mainstream media. Additionally, of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States, approximately 3-5% have suicide prevention training programs.
“We need to end the silence that surrounds the issue of first responder mental health. We should celebrate the lives of those lost to suicide – at national monuments such as the National Law Enforcement Memorial, in the media, and within police and fire departments around the country,” Ruderman added. “Also, departments should encourage or require first responders to access mental health services annually. This will enable our heroes to identify issues early, and get the help that they need. It will save lives.”
For the full white paper, click here.