Since the late 2000's the growing mental toll on our nation's military veterans and the alarming suicide rate have been making national headlines. Lately, another group has been struggling with their own suicide epidemic: first responders. First responder suicide rates have risen alarmingly. Last year, for the third straight year, the number of first responders who died by suicide has outnumbered line of duty deaths. Something must be done.
This June, a 29-year-old New York City police officer shot and killed himself outside the Staten Island Police precinct where he worked.
It marked the latest in a troubling trend: three suicides of New York Police Department officers in 10 days – and the fourth this year. This prompted NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill to deliver a call for action and to encourage fellow cops to not be afraid to seek help if they need it. This is what he tweeted:
“This is a mental-health crisis, and we – the NYPD and the law enforcement profession as a whole – absolutely must take action. This cannot be allowed to continue. Cops spend so much of their days assisting others. There is no shame in seeking assistance from the many resources available, both inside and outside the department. Accepting help is never a sign of weakness, in fact, it's a sign of great strength.”
Winning the War Against First Responder Suicide Starts by Acknowledging the Problem
Just like active duty military, first responders experience severe mental and emotional stressors that can lead to depression and post-traumatic stress. Every shift they see the worst in society and witness the tragedies and traumas of people at the worst moment of their lives. One fire fighter put it this way,
"A fire fighter’s every day is someone else’s worst day."
This takes its toll. Another referring to the situation in their department said,
"Many of our fire fighters are retiring mentally broken, functioning in a chronic depressive state or worse, committing suicide."
In professions that emphasize being tough and brave, mental health issues can easily be stigmatized. It’s up to leaders in law enforcement, fire services and EMS to light the way by assuring officers that there will be no judgment of individuals seeking help. According to the Ruderman Family Foundation, of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States, only 3%-5% have suicide prevention training programs. That percentage is unacceptable.
These are men and women who run toward danger to keep the rest of us safe. We owe it to them to provide all the tools and resources needed to keep them healthy, engaged and, perhaps most importantly, appreciated for the sacrifices they make on our behalf.
We can win this war against first responder suicides.
So what can you do?
Implement suicide awareness and intervention training in your department. There are a number of evidence-based intervention protocols out there for you to consider. Not all are as effective as others for first responders. Also, some require multiple days of trainings and can be very costly. The protocol I have found to be very effective is QPR Suicide Intervention. Just as CPR has saved thousands of lives and is easy for anyone to learn and remember, QPR has saved countless lives as well. All a fellow first responder needs to remember is to ask the Question, Persuade the person to receive help, and Refer them to a higher level of care. The training is extremely affordable and can be done in three hours at your location. It also includes hands-on scenario training.
Consider forming a critical incident stress management team and/or peer support team in your department. Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) is a method of helping first responders and others who have been involved in critical incidents that leave them emotionally and/or physically affected by those incidents. CISM is a process that enables peers to help their peers understand problems that might occur after an event. This process also helps people prepare to continue to perform their duties and process what has occurred in a healthy manner. Some states and regions already have CISM teams in place for first responders. Designated personnel from your agency should be trained and consider joining one of these teams if available. You may also consider forming a peer counseling team in your agency to offer informal peer-to-peer assistance for everyday issues your personnel may encounter.
Remove the stigma of seeking professional help for emotional health issues and mental health support. Shame and stigma are still barriers, as they are with suicide and mental health issues among any population. But it's compounded in professions that prioritize bravery and toughness. Consider this quote from PoliceOne.com,
"The first step is to look toward implementing a stigma free culture throughout law enforcement. Too often, perhaps because of the nature of cops, the job, and even police culture, officers going through personal crisis or even debilitating emotional upsets feel they have nowhere to turn or the stigma attached to admitting the need for help would be taken as a sign of weakness or indication they are no longer fit or trustworthy to do the job."
Often the justification for this fear is entrenched in official policy. Some agencies require responders seeking or receiving mental health treatment, or who take psychotropic drugs, to inform the department and even face duty restrictions while under such care. It is this type of stigma or misunderstanding that perpetuates false information and traps cops in a prison of depression or anxiety.
Be part of the solution. Let us partner with you to provide life-saving suicide intervention training for your people. Or better yet, help you develop a comprehensive peer support program in your department. Get in touch with us today to learn more. Click here to send us an email or call 337-302-6624.