Study Finds First Responders More Likely to Die from Suicide than in the Line of Duty
Apr. 12—First responders, including policemen and firefighters, are more likely to die from suicide than in the line of duty, according to a new study.
In 2017, at least 103 firefighters and 140 police officers took their own lives, compared to the 93 firefighters and 129 police officers who died in the line of duty, the Ruderman Family Foundation reports.
The mental health study cited PTSD and depression stemming from exposure to trauma as factors that contributed to the higher-than-usual suicide rates.
On average, over the course of their careers, police officers witness 188 "critical events" which include witnessing or executing a mistake that injures or kills a colleague or bystander, being taken hostage, being threatened with a gun, or seeing someone dying, among other events.
Additionally, the recorded rates of suicide among first responders could be artificially low—the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance estimates that approximately 40% of firefighter suicides are reported. This could make the actual number of suicides in 2017 closer to 257—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.
The paper also highlights barriers that block first responders' access to mental health services, including the shame and stigma surrounding mental health within professions that celebrate bravery and toughness.
Professionals are embarrassed to speak publicly about their mental health struggles, and fear that openly addressing the topic could negatively impact their career advancement, the study shows.
"There is the perception that honesty around mental illness could be 'career destroying," the study reads. "In this climate in which no one talks about mental health, first responders feel isolated and do not access the help that they so desperately need."
The report notes that just 3-5% of the United States' 18,000 law enforcement agencies 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 county," Ruderman said.