When you hear the words first responders and suicide, most likely you think of first responders saving the lives of those who may have attempted suicide, and how these brave men and women respond quickly providing compassionate and life-saving treatment to people in need. While this is often true, unfortunately, our first responders are often the ones in need of compassionate care themselves.
Mental health matters. That has become a common talking point. While the stigma surrounding mental health has started to dissipate, it remains in some sectors of the population. Unfortunately, one of those sectors is our heroes – our first responders. That needs to change.
First responders work in a consistently stressful environment, where they frequently face traumatic events. Their jobs are dangerous and risky. They often do not have time between traumas to rest and process what they have seen. These working conditions can contribute to the development of stress, depression, suicidal ideation, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is especially true for police officers; approximately 25% of female officers and 23% of male officers have indicated that they have had thoughts of suicide. In fact, more first responders die by suicide than in the line of duty. This is a frightening and, importantly, preventable statistic.
Everyone should know that it is OK to ask for help for their mental health, that mental health matters as much as physical health. First responders need to know that they, too, can and SHOULD ask for help. First responders are typically known for their bravery and tough exterior. Unfortunately, that culture of bravery and tough exteriors does not foster an environment conducive to speaking openly about mental health, or an environment perceived to be empathetic about mental struggles. Many first responders fear loss of advancement in their career or judgement if they are open about their difficulties. They also feel the need to be tough, and to deal with things on their own.
Given the statistics on suicide and the risks for mental illness associated with first responders, it is imperative that mental health becomes a priority among fire and police departments. Stigma, the need to be “manly,” fear of repercussion or fear of career advancement for first responders must be diminished. They deserve it. Just like when we’re on an airplane and we must put on our own oxygen masks before we put them on our children, we need to encourage our first responders to take care of themselves before they can help others.
For this stigma to lessen, we as a society need to ensure that our first responders know that we not only see them as brave, but that we also see them as people deserving of care. We can help by:
- Continuing to talk about mental health and normalizing it
- Encouraging the media to report on suicides of first responders and calling those that lose their life by suicide heroes just like those who lost their lives in the line of duty
- Encouraging our police and fire departments to make mental health check-ups a requirement for our first responders
- Recognizing when our loved ones who are first responders are struggling, and encouraging them to get help
Remember, first responders are heroes who face traumas every day. “Your worst day is often their best day.”