I’m talking about police officers and firefighters who face deadly dangers and serious stressors on a regular basis. Gruesome car accidents, raging fires with trapped victims screaming for help, domestic abuse calls that can easily end with officers injured or killed. Hostage situations and the ever-present possibility of having to respond to a mass shooting or bombing, blood, terror, death is a way of life for these brave first responders.
Can you imagine facing this kind of trauma every single work day? How would you cope?
The sad fact is a growing number of law enforcement officers and firefighters find it impossible to go on. The cumulative effect of all the shock bearing down on their souls day after day can lead them to face the final, ultimate demon — the urge to commit suicide.
In a recent white paper study by the Ruderman Foundation I was struck by the stark reality. The opening paragraph announces, “Police and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.”
Digest that shocking line for a moment. Our community heroes, the ones who run toward danger while the rest of us run away, are so profoundly good at what they do they don’t die on their dangerous jobs nearly as often as they go home and take their own lives.
The Ruderman study reports that in 2017 suicide was the cause of death for at least 103 firefighters and 140 law enforcement officers. That is a suicide rate more than five times higher than the general population.
But according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, an advocacy organization that calls the increase in the number of firefighter suicides “jaw-dropping,” the underreporting at play here is significant. The FBHA estimates that only about 40 percent of firefighter suicides are actually reported. If that is accurate, the number of suicide deaths of firefighters would be more than double the 103 reported, closer to 260 deaths.
Not mentioned in the Ruderman study, but just as important to my mind, are all those other first responders. Emergency medical technicians, paramedics, ambulance attendants and emergency room doctors and nurses. They are also routinely exposed to the most shocking and raw situations any person can face. Besides tending to those in the last throes of life they can encounter tiny murdered children, convulsive overdose cases, heart-attack victims, grieving and inconsolable survivors. And each of these first responders do it because they care about their fellow human beings.
I personally know several first responders. They confirm other Ruderman Foundation findings. First, there are simply not enough mental health programs available to these brave men and women. “Of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States,” the white paper reports, “approximately three to five percent have suicide prevention training programs.”
Second, many of these dedicated people believe it could be career-ending if they were to admit they need some mental health care. And they have good cause to feel that way. Stressed supervisors worried about filling positions grow impatient with a staffer who needs to make a therapist appointment or take days off to decompress after a grisly call.
In Florida, for example, following the Pulse Nightclub Shooting in Orlando – 49 dead – and the high school shooting in Parkland – 17 dead – those first responders who were diagnosed with disabling PTSD were not covered under workman’s comp for lost wages while they recovered. Late last month Florida’s governor signed a bill to rectify that, but it was not in time to help Cpl. Omar Delgado, one of the first on scene at the gruesome Pulse Nightclub shooting. He found he couldn’t shake the blood-soaked scene and reached out for help. He took a few months off and was then placed on desk duty. With just six months to go before being vested in the pension system, he was fired. Delgado, a married father of three, said, “I guess I’m being punished because I asked for help.”
It is time to lift the mental health stigma that most certainly affects a sizeable segment of our first responders. One cannot see what they see and do what they do month after month without some profound effect on their psyches. It costs a lot of money to train professional first responders. To toss them to the curb when they have problems or, worse yet,to force them into staying silent when they really need assistance helps no one. If they had a broken arm the department would wait for it to heal. So if they have a broken emotional center, doesn’t it make sense to help them heal that too?