(ST. JOSEPH, Mo.) First responders are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, according to a new study.
The Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders looks at factors affecting mental health in the field.
The study found there were at least 103 firefighter and 140 police officer suicides in 2017. In contrast, the paper said 93 firefighters and 129 police officers died in the line of duty during that same time period.
Buchanan County EMS Director Wallace Patrick said first responders' mental health is an ongoing discussion in the field. A few factors contribute to the problem.
Emergencies Lead to Risky and Dangerous Situations
Patrick said first responders are exposed to dangerous and risky situations every day.
"On a normal routine call your at risk for blood-borne pathogens, airborne pathogens, violence and dealing with patients who substance abuse," he said.
Witnesses to Traumatic Events
One study included in the white paper found police officers witness 188 “critical incidents” on average during their careers. Patrick said this exposure to trauma can lead to several forms of mental illness.
"I can remember talking to parents," he said. "I had to tell that their child wasn't going to leave the hospital and my crews have those same things happen to them on the street."
According to the paper, PTSD and depression rates among firefighters and police officers have been found to be as much as five times higher than the rates within the general population. The researchers hypothesize it causes first responders to commit suicide at a considerably higher rate — firefighters, 18 per 100,000; police officers, 17 per 100,000; general population, 13 per 100,000.
Personalities Drawn to the Profession
Personality may also be a contributing factor. Patrick said in his experience, many EMS workers have a Type A personality. He said many of his colleagues can be self critical and put too much pressure on themselves.
"You think you did a lousy job because the person didn't make it," Patrick said. "The reality of it is, that person was not going to make it regardless of where that situation occurred."
Inadequate Mental Health Resources
The white paper also identifies several barriers preventing first responders from accessing necessary mental health services to help them cope with trauma, such as shame and stigma surrounding mental health in professions prioritizing bravery and toughness.
Few agencies have resources to address mental health issues. According to the paper of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the U.S., approximately 3 to 5 percent have suicide prevention training programs.
Patrick said because of these factors, he makes the mental health of his team a priority.
"A lot of it is communication," he said. "Having a discussion about what calls they've had, what life saves they've done, which ones they've lost those kinds of things and working through that."
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