Biggest Risk For First Responders? One Study Says Suicide

Co-author Suggests Breaking Silence Around First Responders’ Trauma

Jennifer Bloodworth
April 12, 2018 - 7:42 pm

PITTSBURGH (NewsRadio 1020 KDKA) — A study commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that first responders are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.

The Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders examines a number of factors contributing to mental health issues among police officers and fire fighters and what leads to their elevated rate of suicide.

One study examined indicates policemen and firefighters increased exposure to trauma can lead to several forms of mental illness. Some researchers have found post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression rates among first responders are as much as five times higher than those within the civilian population.

Untreated mental illness can lead to diminished physical health and decision-making, and suicide.

Last year, there were at least 103 firefighter suicides and 140 police officer suicides, whereas 93 firefighters and 129 police officers died in the line of duty.

Dr. Miriam Heyman co-authored the study for the foundation. She told the KDKA Radio Afternoon News these numbers and the silence behind them is tragic.

“There’s an incredible amount of stigma around mental health and mental illness in our country and amongst these professionals in particular where they prioritize bravery and courage and other people before themselves,” Dr. Weyman said. “These numbers are shocking because they’re so high and we haven’t been talking about it.”

Dr. Weyman added these numbers “represent the bare minimum,” as suicide amongst first responders often goes unreported. The firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance estimates 40% of firefighter suicides are reported to them.  

One mental health professional told Dr. Weyman mental illness should be normalized among first responders as an occupational hazard.

“We become aware of the heroic bravery of first responders in the aftermath of the really big horrific events like the most recent Parkland shooting,” Weyman said. “But the reality is that police officers and firefighters, they witness death and destruction regularly; it’s part of their daily job.”

Of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, less than 10% have suicide prevention programs. Although innovative programs exist, Dr. Weyman says there should be more in order to break the silence and stigma to help those who help others.