It’s no secret that first responders such as police officers, EMTs and firefighters have hazardous jobs. They understand the risks involved in the line of duty, as they are putting their lives on the line every day.
But that’s not the only danger they face. There’s another one that isn’t written into job descriptions or talked about around the station. In addition to the always-present possibility of physical danger is an increased susceptibility to mental health issues as well as substance abuse and addiction. These issues can stem from the day-to-day overall stress of the role or specific traumatic events witnessed on the job. First responders are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues ranging from depression and anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder and sometimes suicidal ideation.
Unfortunately, the workplace cultures of first responders generally don’t foster being open about mental health challenges. There’s an erroneous perception that first responders are expected to help others, not be helped. Even if departments provide assistance, first responders can still experience a stigma attached to taking advantage of these resources. In some cases, this includes bullying and even job loss. Far too often, police officers, firefighters and EMTs aren’t provided the opportunity to fully process what they witness on the job, which can lead to problems.
When left untreated, anxiety, depression and PTSD can lead to alcohol and drug abuse and even suicide. Easy access to drug supplies can exacerbate the road to addiction. A study by the Ruderman Family Foundation looked at depression, PTSD and other issues affecting first responders and the rates of suicide in departments nationwide. The group found that while suicide has been an ingrained issue for years, very little has been done to address it even though first responders have PTSD and depression at a level five times that of civilians.
In 2017, 103 firefighters and 140 police officers committed suicide, whereas 93 firefighters and 129 officers died in the line of duty, which includes being shot, stabbed, drowning or dying in a car accident while on the job.
Miriam Heyman, one of the study’s co-authors, said the numbers of suicide are extremely under-reported, while other more high-profile deaths make headlines. In 2017, 46 officers died after being fatally shot on the job, nearly 67% less than the number of suicides.
The number of firefighter suicides may only represent about 40% of the deaths, she said, meaning the deaths could total more than 250. That’s more than double the amount of all line-of-duty deaths.
Organizations and squads throughout the country are raising awareness and working to change the culture from one of silence to one of support. The key is bringing these issues out into the open and encouraging first responders to talk to each other about mental health.
Fortunately, there’s help for those who need it. Programs specifically catered to first responders who are struggling with mental illness and addiction are available. With the right kind of help, behavioral health issues and substance abuse can be treated and overcome. If you or someone you know is a first responder suffering due to work-related trauma, don’t remain silent. Speak up and reach out. It could save a life.
Southwest EAP has provided employee assistance programs and risk management solutions to companies, including many municipal and county organizations since 1978. Our commitment to excellence is founded on the belief that active partnership with our client companies and delivering face-to-face services produces the best results. Visit us online at southwesteap.com.