Futures Recovery

First Responders and Suicide: What to Know, How to Help

First responders are pivotal in helping people and communities navigate numerous types of natural and human-caused disasters. From hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires to pandemics and terrorist acts, these medical, military, and specialty-trained personnel are the first to arrive, offering their skills, knowledge, and specialized expertise. The world depends on their physical, mental, and emotional strength. But, what happens to these heroic, disaster laborers once a traumatic event is over? 

According to studies, 30% of first responders develop behavior health conditions, compared with 20% of the general population. These issues can include depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. 

Suicidal ideation or “suicidal thoughts” can be defined as fleeting thoughts, consideration, or detailed planning of taking one’s own life. It is crucial, that should you or someone you care for exhibit any suicidal thoughts or behaviors, that you seek help immediately. And, it’s extremely important that you understand, you are not alone. At Futures Recovery Healthcare, we understand the unique challenges first responders face in and out of recovery. 

Understanding the Risk of Suicide for First Responders

As we previously mentioned, a first responder is any person who has specialized training for natural or un-natural disasters. Emergency medical technicians (EMT’s) firefighters, paramedics, police, rescue volunteers, search and rescue personnel, military, and any other individual trained to arrive first to an emergency site are considered a first responder

While first responders help so many to overcome trauma, their own resulting trauma can be difficult to handle. On top of the stress and trauma associated with what first responders encounter, they, like many of us also have “life” stressors—financial, relationship-oriented, etc. They may either not fully comprehend the magnitude of their stress, or, because of the strength and fortitude required for their job, may have trouble asking for help. 

And, first responders and those who care for them, may not know how common suicide and suicidal ideation is among their population. Take a look at the following statistics regarding suicide and suicidal thoughts among first responders:

  • One study revealed that law enforcement officers die by suicide more than from being killed in the line of duty.
  • Another study revealed that 28% of EMS workers felt at some point during their lifetime that life is not worth living, with 10.4% having serious suicidal ideation, and 3.1% reporting a past suicide attempt. 
  • Of 1,027 current and retired U.S. firefighters, estimated suicidal ideation was at 46.8%, those in the planning phase, 19.2%, and 15.5% suicide attempts compared to 13.5%, 3.9%, and 4.6% among the general U.S. population. 
  • Officers with burnout have a significantly greater risk of suicide, with a 117% higher likelihood of suicidal thoughts.

To help ensure that first responders get the necessary and immediate suicide prevention help they need, knowing the signs of suicidal thoughts is vital.  

Indications of Suicidal Thoughts, Considerations, and/or Planning

The signs that first responders may have suicidal thoughts, are considering suicide, or planning to take their life can vary from seemingly benign demonstrations of irritation, anger, and anxiety to more obvious actions such as isolating from loved ones and making statements that are suicidal in nature. 

The following signs are examples of suicidal thoughts and planning:

  • Making suicidal statements such as, “I wish I was dead,” “I don’t want to be here anymore,” “I wish I’d never been born,” or, “I want (or am going) to kill myself”
  • Isolating from friends, coworkers, and social situations
  • Exhibiting hopelessness
  • Having trouble sleeping and/or concentrating
  • Feeling depressed, overwhelmed, powerless, and/or burned out
  • Feeling angry, irritable, anxious, and/or nervous
  • Showing a preoccupation with death, dying, and/or violence
  • Lacking motivation or being excessively tired
  • Stockpiling pills, weapons, etc.
  • Increasing alcohol and/or drug use
  • Displaying risky and reckless behaviors 
  • Offering to give away items that are special or sentimental in nature
  • Saying goodbye in a way that hints permanence 

First responders, unlike the general public, may have greater access to means to harm themselves, which is why if you or someone you love identifies with any of the signs above, it’s imperative to seek professional help as soon as possible.

Behavioral Health Triggers and Barriers to Receiving Help

Due to the broad range of issues first responders are exposed to in their work—death, injury, pain, loss, grief—combined with long work hours and shifts, lack of sleep, physical demands, and other adverse experiences, there are many issues that can trigger behavioral health outcomes. It’s these consequences that may eventually also lead to suicide ideation or suicide if left unaddressed. 

The following scenarios may directly or indirectly prompt negative mental and emotional thought processes, triggering mental disorders:

  • Lack of proper specialty training required for specific natural or human-caused disaster
  • Unsuccessful adaptation to stressors
  • Unsatisfactory organizational support or positive relationships with coworkers and/or leadership
  • Poor planning and protocols for disaster mobilization and strategic planning
  • Failed awareness of a first responder exhibiting signs of burnout, fatigue, depression, and emotional/physical vulnerability
  • Deficient preparedness in self-care during a traumatic event (not receiving enough sleep, nutritious meals, exercise, or breaks)
  • Insufficient or missing mental health and resilience training (prior to a disaster) and debriefing (after a disaster)

The list above is simply some of the potential scenarios that can lead to behavioral and mental health problems, eventually triggering suicidal ideation and suicide. However, there may be additional personal, physical, and environmental factors that cause first responders to become suicidal. 

In terms of barriers for treatment, aside from feeling as if, “I am a failure if I ask for help,” or, “Because I’m a first responder, I should be able to handle this,” there can be added perceptions that treatment for mental health is a sign of weakness. While this stigma is not as prevalent as it once was, it’s important for first responders to recognize that asking for help is one of the best first steps they can take!

First Steps for First Responders in Getting Help

If you or someone you love has exhibited signs and symptoms of suicidal thoughts, it’s important to seek out mental health resources that provide evidence-based therapies, comprehensive and compassionate care, and licensed professionals who are highly-trained and skilled in specifically assisting first responders. 

Futures Recovery Healthcare Hero’s Ascent First Responder’s program offers a safe and non-judgmental environment for males and females 18 and over struggling with mental health disorders. Here, we address Depressive Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, Personality Disorders, Bipolar and Related Disorders by using clinical, medical and psychiatric interventions, and support. Our interdisciplinary team approach allows patients to receive holistic services and care. Our goal is to help develop and establish a journey of healing and a life worth living.

If you are ready to get help and begin a life in peace and joy, Futures is here for you. Contact us confidentially online or by phone at 866-804-2098