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First Responder Mental Health

KEY FINDINGS from a recent Nationwide Survey involving first responders:

  • 90% report stigma as a barrier to seeking treatment

  • 79% report experiencing critical stress at some point during their career

  • Over 90% report a belief that there is a lack of awareness by the public and the profession that critical stress is a problem in law enforcement

  • Peer support is viewed as the most helpful of treatments by 73% of respondents

As we close out Mental Health Awareness Month, we must recognize as a global community, there is a great urgency in addressing the mental health of our first responders. A recent study conducted by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that 103 Firefighters and 140 Police Officers committed suicide in 2018. Take this in contrast to the amount of “in the line of duty” deaths, which include fatal shootings, stabbing, drowning or vehicles accidents which reflect 93 firefighters and 129 police officers. In 2017 there were 46 officers fatally shot, that’s 67% less than those lost to suicide. It is largely believed that the suicide rates are extremely underreported and as the awareness grows, the numbers are anticipated to increase.

Most departments do not release statistics on first responder suicides and less than 5% have a suicide prevention program. There isn’t enough conversation about mental health. This silence can be deadly, as it can be interpreted as a lack of acceptance and prevent first responders from seeking out potentially life saving treatment. Most first responders do not reach out for help because there is a lack of knowledge of available resources, fear of losing their job or promotion, and shame.

What can we do about it? We need to start removing the stigma from mental health. Recognize that seeking treatment is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. We can provide anonymity, peer support teams, mental health check-ups after a traumatic event, department wide suicide prevention programs and mental health counseling as a career benefit.

David Acunto