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What Can Cities Do to Lower First Responder's Suicide Risk?

The role of first responders is a heavy responsibility. They are first on the scene of an emergency or critical accident, and they deal with the trauma of other people every single day. Every second on the job counts and can mean the difference between life and death. 

This kind of responsibility can wear anyone down. Not only do many first responders suffer from mental health and substance abuse issues, but they also have a staggering number of suicide rates. Statistics regarding suicide rates among first responders are shocking. So what can cities do to help lower this rate among their emergency response providers? 

What the Research Says

It is estimated that 30 percent of first responders develop behavioral health conditions including, but not limited to, depression and PTSD, as compared with 20 percent of the general population. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have found that occupational stress in first responders can be associated with the risk of serious mental health issues including hopelessness, anxiety, and suicidal behaviors such as ideation and actual attempts. If you think about the nature of the role of first responders and what they are asked to do to help preserve life, it's obvious how that can have some serious psychological implications. 

According to research, over 50 percent of firefighter deaths are due to stress and extreme exhaustion, and firefighters experience greater elevated levels of posttraumatic stress from the position. In another study, an estimated 69 percent of EMS providers report not having enough recovery time between traumatic incidents. Police officers are also more likely to die from suicide than in the line of duty. As you can see, the stress and trauma these first responders have to endure take a massive toll on their mental health, leading to higher suicide rates. 

What is Being Done to Prevent Suicides Among First Responders?

Treatment for mental health among first responders can be tricky, seeing as the scope of the job does not change. Additionally, intrinsic barriers can complicate the demand for treatment, such as stigma, diminished capacity on the job, informal codes of silence, and upper command and administration turning  a blind eye. 

There are several initiatives to better understand and prevent suicides among these professionals as more research comes to fruition. Most recently, in 2020, the U.S. House and Senate approved funding for the Helping Emergency Responders Overcome (HERO) Act. This legislation directs the CDC to create a public safety office suicide reporting system to increase knowledge of these events. This data will provide opportunities to better understand suicide fatalities and the circumstances around those among first responders. Such research will help open the door to promoting targeted treatment plans based on data. 

There are other plans in place to start implementing treatment for first responders, such as IOPs, peer-to-peer sessions, and state-based programs. IOPs provide a more aggressive intervention path for first responders to be treated, which is being proposed as a possible conduit for regulating trauma symptomology. They are designed to deliver treatment at a more rapid pace and address relapse anchors and coping skills. Peer-to-peer support programs are being implemented throughout the US and Canada and are a great resource. The program's focus is to help first responders communicate their traumas by being able to process them with a peer. State-based programs are also becoming more popular, and include educational seminars, mental health training, and peer support. 

Overall, the challenges faced by first responders have grown exponentially, and the more research that can be provided, the more beneficial these programs can become. As crises around the world continue to grow for these professionals, so too must the efforts of research and programs to help sustain mental health. 

  1. Source: Tiesman, Elkins, Brown, March, Carson (2021) Suicides Among First Responders: A Call to Action

  1. Source: Rodney Luster, Ph.D. (2022) First Responders and Mental Health: When Heroes Need Rescuing

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