First responders more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty

Jim Cunningham
April 16, 2018 - 5:59 am

A study commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation finds that police officers, firefighters and emergency medics are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.

Flags are typically not lowered in the case of a first responder who takes his or her own life. That could lead to under-reporting of emergency worker suicides by more than half. The study found that in 2017, there were at least 103 firefighter suicides and 140 police officer suicides. In the same year, 93 firefighters and 129 police officers died in the line of duty.

One reason for the alarming statistics is the tradition of the stoic hero who favors self-reliance over reaching out for help.

"I was always told just to toughen up, deal with it, it's part of the job," said John Lacy, an officer with the Overland Park Police Department. "Nowadays, we offer support for our police officers -- we need to talk about it, we need to get it off our chest because we'll take it home with us."

Shawnee Fire Chief John Mattox said more departments are looking for ways to handle job stress, depression and anything else that might lead to suicide.

"We have a fire department chaplain and the original intent was to help us in the public," Mattox said. "We immediately realized what a great thing that was and how much help, internally, he could be."

While departments might hold an incident debriefing following a mass casualty incident, there often is very little done to address the day-to-day incidents that begin to take on a cumulative effect on a person's psyche.

"History and research has proved that when those things don't go away, then you put another one on top of it, whether it's the next day, or next week or six months later, now you've got a couple of (problems)," Maddox said. "And then you deal with the stresses of everyday life, home life and work life, it just builds up."

The study found that of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States, only about 3-5 percent have suicide prevention training programs.

The report's commissioners said first responder suicide deaths should be memorialized the same way line-of-duty deaths are.

The Ruderman Family Foundation is a philanthropic organization that calls itself a non-partisan strategic catalyst in cooperation with government, private sectors, civil society and philanthropies.

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