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Education/Training

San Diego County Fights First Responder Suicides

More first responders lose their lives to suicide than in the line of duty. We’re doing something about it.

In September our country remembered the first responders and innocent Americans who lost their lives during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A lot has changed over the past 18 years, but one thing remains the same: Firefighters, law enforcement officers, and other first responders in counties and cities across our nation continue to risk their lives to protect complete strangers.

First responders run toward danger when others run away. They have taken an oath to serve and protect. First responders are highly trained tacticians. They are conditioned to be tough, stoic, and stand up in the face of menacing situations, all to protect us.

But while first responders are protecting us, who is protecting them?

First responders see traumatic situations daily. Violence, injury, and chaos are inherent to first responders’ line of work and triggers for post-traumatic stress. Repeated exposure can cause immediate and delayed distress that can lead to social and emotional impairment and affect one’s behavioral health. If untreated, this trauma can cause problems with family, social, and work activities.

For many first responders seeking behavioral health support using their department resources is still not a viable option. Stigma associated with reaching out for help prevents first responders from getting the support they need. The stigma can stem from a fear of being passed over for promotion, breaches in confidentiality by sharing intimate information, or being viewed as unfit to perform their duties.

First responders in a mental health crisis need quick access to a cost-free, confidential, and stigma-free support system that is not directly tied to their department. This will help people by linking them to the clinical intervention they need to get past their struggles.

Nationally, more first responders lose their lives to suicide than in the line of duty, according to the Ruderman Family Foundation.1 In 2017 the nation’s first responder community experienced the tragic loss of 93 firefighters and 129 police officers in the line of duty. That same year we lost at least 103 firefighters and 140 police officers nationally to suicide. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance estimates half of firefighter suicides may not be reported.2 The actual number who died by suicide may be much higher.

Our region’s police, fire, and sheriff department leadership in San Diego County have been working proactively to change the culture around wellness, educate the ranks about impacts of trauma on the job, and promote access to support services. 

Some of the public safety departments have expanded access to employee assistance programs and other services. The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department cited that 526 quarterly counseling hours took place from January–March 2019. CalFire reported 72 counseling hours took place during that same period. This encouraging, but the equity of support services varies across our county. 

A recent article in the Journal of Psychiatric Research concluded that stigma and barriers to care are experienced by a significant proportion of first responders, which can lead to delays or refusal to obtain mental healthcare, increasing the risk of worsening post-trauma mental illness for this group.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors supports our policy for a confidential, stigma-free behavioral health support program that was named after a young, talented first responder who tragically took his own life.

The Fire Captain Ryan J. Mitchell’s First Responder Behavioral Health Support Program will help any first responder during a mental health crisis—from any municipality or branch of public safety in San Diego County, active or retired. 

We want to help first responders connect instantly with a peer support specialist. They will be able to speak to licensed clinical professionals and receive free, confidential help. To combat the stigma of getting help, we will also launch a public education campaign about how to get help and manage stress, trauma, and behavioral health challenges.

We must do more to protect those who put their lives on the line every day to protect us.

This article was originally published by CalMatters.

References

1. Ruderman Family Foundation. Study: Police Officers and Firefighters Are More Likely to Die by Suicide Than in Line of Duty, https://rudermanfoundation.org/white_papers/police-officers-and-firefighters-are-more-likely-to-die-by-suicide-than-in-line-of-duty/.

2. Cohen L. The Wildfire Death Toll Nobody Talks About. WhoWhatWhy, 2019 Oct 15; https://whowhatwhy.org/2019/10/15/the-wildfire-death-toll-nobody-talks-about/.

Nathan Fletcher is a San Diego County supervisor. Reach him at Nathan.Fletcher@sdcounty.ca.gov

David Leonhardi is president of the San Diego County Deputy Sheriff’s Association. Reach him at dleonhardi@dsasd.org.

 

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