By Gerald Steckmeister, IPSA Fitness and Wellness Committee Member
First responders and public safety officers have a higher rate of suicide than the average population, and it is time we started to talk about it. In 2017, a reported 103 firefighters and 140 law enforcement officers died by suicide, higher that the line of duty deaths for both disciplines, and according to another study, the rate of suicide attempts among EMS workers is 10 times the national average. In 2018, there was a similar trend in law enforcement.
High stress work environment
First responders make life and death decisions every day. They have a front row seat to horrific accidents and, even worse, an individual’s inhumanity toward another. Some first responders are required to use force on a fellow human being. In an average month, first responders are exposed to more trauma than some people see in a lifetime. No one calls for a first responder’s help when things are going ok. They call when because their lives are in chaos, which sometimes causes first responders to experience second-hand trauma. This vicarious trauma takes a toll. One study noted that the types of stressors identified in this line of work “may lead to a temporary reduction in the biological ability to respond to further stressful events.” And these constant encounters can result in cumulative PTSD.
Most first responders choose a career in public safety to help others. As such, first responders do not generally think about asking others to help them when help is needed. Unfortunately, when a first responder realizes he or she needs help, it is often too late and there is also a fear of being stigmatized by their peers and colleagues. They are often the last to seek assistance when they really need it.
Make an actionable difference
There are several actionable differences that departments can make today. Some of the suggestions are simple to implement and others require substantive conversations and planning. The below items will make a difference and may save a life. Below are some ideas to get a conversation started.
Cultural shift. A paradigm shift is needed in the public safety profession in which behavioral health is viewed in the same regard as medical health. A behavioral health checkup should not be feared by the public safety profession. Self-care needs to be practiced, just like preventative maintenance on our equipment, firearms training or any other regularly scheduled activity. Make sure to perform a regular self-assessment.
Identify risk factors. It is important to recognize the risk factors and warning signs of depression, PTSD and suicide. If you recognize these symptoms in one of your friends or co-workers, reach out and talk to them. Try to convince them to seek help. The IPSA created three free downloadable infographics on depression, PTSD and suicide. Everyone is encouraged to print and post them in their departments.
Implement a resiliency program. All departments need to develop a resiliency program. The IPSA recently did a webinar that is available for 24/7 viewing about how to start a resiliency program. It is titled: Mental Readiness: Stigma Reduction & Resiliency Program.
Use peer-support programs. Another solution that has worked well is an inter-agency peer support program. Some first responders may be reluctant to speak to someone on their own job, but they may speak to a peer with a different agency, allowing for a certain amount of anonymity.
Suicide in public safety is prevalent and it is rarely discussed. This needs to change. Discussion can lead to solutions and save lives. First responders advocate to the public “if you see something, say something” and they need do the same. When a co-worker needs help, the department needs to be there. Self-reflection is equally important. If first responders don’t look after themselves, they will not be able to help others.
About the Author
Gerald Steckmeister is a Police Lieutenant, with 19 years of law enforcement experience, and a Major in the NY Army National Guard. In addition, he serves on the Board of Directors of the Westchester B.L.U.E. Foundation and serves as member of the IPSA Fitness and Wellness Committee.
Infographics: Depression, PTSD and Suicide
Why public safety professionals need to prevent, identify stress (and apply coping strategies)
How self-care can reduce police officer stress
Webinar: Mental Readiness: Stigma Reduction & Resiliency Program.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
National Association of Mental Illness: 800-950-6264
Safe Call Now: 206-459-3020