This story contains discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, a troubling trend that researchers say didn’t improve in 2020 despite national suicide rates decreasing.
A new study provided exclusively to USA TODAY from the Ruderman Family Foundation, a private philanthropic organization that advocates for people with disabilities, found that police officers and firefighters continue to be more likely to die by suicide than working in the line of duty, maintaining a similar finding the group concluded in a 2018 study. But in 2020, COVID-19 became the leading cause of death for law enforcement officers.
Researchers and advocates say the discrepancy in suicide rates among the general population and first responders is rooted in unaddressed shame and stigma associated with suicide, a lack of research and resources for first responders dealing with mental health challenges and growing pressure and stress from the pandemic.
“First responders were out there on the front line (during the pandemic), doing their jobs,” Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said in an interview. “And historically, the stress of being in these jobs and what they experience has led to a higher rate of suicide … but suicide is not really talked about.”
Despite suicide rates for the general population declining by 3 percent, or 1,656 people, from 2019 to 2020, according to CDC data, the rates among first responders showed moderate to no decrease from 2017 to 2020, the Ruderman study found.
In 2020, 116 police officers died by suicide and 113 died in the line of duty, according to researchers. While the number of suicides dropped from 140 in 2017, study co-author Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim noted that 2020 numbers are likely an undercount due to stigma and shame, lack of reporting and people needing time to come forward.
Meanwhile, there were 127 suicides reported among firefighters and EMTs in 2020, slightly higher than the 126 confirmed in 2017.
The study largely utilized data from 2020, as numbers from 2021 were still being updated. The data came from the Blue Wall Institute’s Law Enforcement Suicide Mortality Database and the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, which collects data on firefighter and EMT suicides in the U.S.
The group’s 2018 report found that while suicide is an issue that has plagued first responders for years, very little has been done to address it. Since that 2018 study, researchers say they have not seen sufficient efforts and programs aimed at promoting awareness of first responder mental health and preventing suicide.
“The programs and policies targeted to address these issues remain insufficient,” the new report said.
Unpacking cultural stigma in the workplace
Like many who encounter trauma in their line of work, first responders can struggle with dropping work from their minds when they get home, Bar Nissim said.
“These characteristics and traits of the role don’t go away when they take off the uniform,” Bar Nissim said. “Being heroic, being brave, identifying mental health as a sign of weakness, it’s something that stays with them even as they take off the uniforms.”
Expectations of heroism and selflessness also create a culture that discourages showing weakness or admitting to struggles, further fostering hurdles to resources and support for those who need it the most, Bar Nissim and Ruderman told USA TODAY.
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A 2019 survey from the University of Phoenix found nearly half of first responders believe there would be repercussions on the job for seeking professional counseling, including receiving different treatment from coworkers or supervisors and being perceived as weak by colleagues and peers.
“I would say overall, the resources are not there,” Ruderman said. “I think people really have to dig down in these professions and seek resources, and then they’re weighing whether it’s OK if I come forward and report my mental health then I lose my badge, my gun and potentially damage my career. That I think historically has played a big factor in why people don’t come forward.”
Mick Yinger is a retired police officer and the executive director of First Responders’ Bridge, a nonprofit that hosts retreats for first responders experiencing depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress or suicidal ideation from their line of work.
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Yinger said his organization is working to dispel the misconception among first responders that seeking mental health treatment is a sign of weakness, and could lead to concerns about their ability to perform at work.
“If we show weakness, our supervision and more importantly our peers might look at us as not being dependable and not being able to get the job done,” Yinger told USA TODAY. “What we find time and time again at our retreats is that when they look around the room at 100 others just like themselves, that they are not alone in feeling what they are feeling and that is when the healing begins.”
A pressing need for solutions
Suicide among police officers gained renewed attention after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. At least four police officers who were dispatched to the building died by suicide in the weeks following the siege.
The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial and the federal Public Safety Officers’ Benefits program do not recognize suicides as “line-of-duty” deaths, a designation that not only memorializes officers’ service but provides hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and other assistance to survivors and the family they leave behind.
Congress has taken notice of higher suicide rates for first responders. A bill, the Public Safety Officer Support Act, aims to expand eligibility for a benefits program to include “stress and trauma-related injuries and death by suicide for law enforcement officers and their families.”
‘It’s going to prey on their minds’:Lawmakers call for mental health help for police and staff in wake of Capitol riot
Yinger says First Responders’ Bridge has seen its retreats fill up 40% faster than before the pandemic. The group offers three retreats a year across the state of Ohio.
“We have noticed more and more attendees showing signs of complex trauma, not only due to COVID-19 but the riots that were taking place, the lack of support from administrations and a society that appeared to turn on them, all within a short period of time,” he said.
Among its recommendations to address rates of suicide among first responders, the Ruderman Foundation paper suggests expanding programs that promote mental health awareness for these groups, monitoring the mental health of retired personnel and newly hired recruits and mandated reporting of suicide deaths and attempts. Currently, no government organization is mandated to track such deaths.
Meanwhile, First Responders’ Bridge and other organizations are working to combat stigma and provide resources to help those struggling find support to combat feelings of isolation, Yinger said.
“First responders who are experiencing depression or anxiety from the job need to know there is nothing wrong with them,” he said. “They are having a normal reaction to the abnormal things we see and hear on the job every day. There are people and organizations ready to stand guard while you heal.”
Learn more about the retreats through First Responders’ Bridge at firstrespondersbridge.org/retreat.
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night. Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.
Contributing: Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY