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US First Responders Are More Likely to Die by Suicide Than in the Line of Duty

It would seem like common sense to think that first responders — firefighters and police officers — are most likely to die while on duty, due to the unusually dangerous nature of their work. The sad reality is that they are taking their own lives at greater rates, making suicide the most common cause of death for first responders.

A study from the Ruderman Family Foundation takes a look at the statistics, finding that 93 firefighters and 129 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty during 2017, while 103 firefighters and 140 law enforcement died by suicide over the same time period.

Sadly, though, it’s highly likely the true number of first responder suicides are far greater; one estimate suggests that as many as 40 percent of firefighter suicides are not reported.

Why are so many first responders taking their own lives?

These people are routinely performing extraordinarily stressful — and, at times, traumatic — work. The Ruderman study estimates that police officers typically experience 188 “critical incidents” which fall under these categories. For many, this can foster mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Though such trauma does not always result in suicide, this type of mental illness can have an extremely negative impact when it comes to on-duty decision-making abilities — putting police, their peers and those they are tasked with helping at risk.

Despite this grave reality, first responders have limited access to mental health support services. Only an estimated 3 to 5 percent of law enforcement agencies provide suicide prevention programs.

By and large, the widespread nature of mental illness and suicide in these fields is unknown to the public. Not only are these deaths typically not a subject covered in the media, but suicides are also swept under the rug. There are monuments and community memorial services held to celebrate the lives of those lost heroically while on-duty, but this is not the case for those who take their own lives.

These issues are often brushed aside by first responders as well. In many cases, firefighter and police culture lauds emotional fortitude and internal strength, while severely stigmatizing the notion of seeking mental health help.

Were this not the case, dozens of first responder lives, and the lives of those they are tasked with rescuing, could be saved.

For immediate help if you are in a crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273-TALK (8255), which is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All calls are confidential.

Originally published at Care2.com on Jan. 5, 2019.

Writing about various things (mostly politics & social issues) for more than six years. Freelancer for hire.

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