Mental health programs for our first responders need to be improved and expanded

The Chicago Police Department’s recent announcement of a third officer killed by suicide this month highlights a perfect storm facing first responders not just in Chicago but across the country — and it’s imperative to get them to the rescue. provide what they need.

Given the existing perils of their jobs and now the toll taken by the pandemic, first responders face historically serious mental health problems and alarming mental health outcomes.

Over the past five years, several developments have led to a significant increase in the stress and workload of first responders. Law enforcement agencies have been hit by an increase in violence in society and increasing hostility towards the profession. The after-effects and toll of such stress on the lives and mental health of first responders has yet to be studied and will be felt for many years to come.

Subsequently, since 2020, the pandemic has affected the mental health of the entire population. In many ways, COVID-19 added more work to their already stressful and difficult load for first responders. Research on the stigma on first responders during the pandemic points to an increased sense of isolation and lack of support. People in jobs at higher risk of exposure to the coronavirus have reported a decline in social interactions, accompanied by an increase in the refusal of others to associate with them.

Throughout 2020, first responders were also concerned about passing COVID-19 to their loved ones and felt pressured to maintain physical distance from friends and family. This unique and disturbing experience put too much pressure on first responders.

The ramifications of this grim reality are underlined in research published last month by the Ruderman Family Foundation, which found that 116 police officers committed suicide in the US in 2020, compared to 140 in 2017. Although those numbers show suicide rates are falling. , the 2020 numbers are likely an undercount due to stigma and embarrassment, a lack of reporting and the fact that people need time to come forward – a reality we witnessed with the 2017 data.

Meanwhile, the number of reported suicides by firefighters and ambulance personnel in 2020 was 127, slightly more than the 126 confirmed cases in 2017.

These findings follow on from the Foundation’s 2018 Ruderman white paper on mental health and suicide among first responders, which found that police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than on the job — a trend that continues today. But while the new stress and isolation that the pandemic has brought to the lives of first responders has led to increased mental health programming and resources, the number of suicides by first responders had not decreased significantly as of 2020 (official data for 2021 still being updated) .

In his recent press conference, Chicago Police Sut. David Brown showed empathy for the ongoing mental health crisis among first responders, acknowledging that police officers “are people and struggle just like everyone else” and, more importantly, “the stigma of even talking to anyone in our profession is challenging.” Brown announced The CPD also plans to provide 24-hour mental health care, faith-based counseling, and free confidential programs for current and former officers.

Chicago’s actions in the wake of the July suicides should remind police nationwide that programs to promote mental health awareness need to be improved and expanded.

Additional measures should be taken, such as monitoring the mental health of retired first responders and assessing the mental health of newly hired personnel. This may include the use of risk assessment and preventive procedures to help reduce or eliminate the negative effects of exposure to traumatic incidents. Having fair and inclusive media coverage can also help remove the stigma surrounding suicide by first responders and reduce the grief of bereaved families and colleagues.

In addition, mandatory reporting of suicide deaths and non-fatal attempts is needed. Currently, no government agency requires reporting of such deaths or attempts. Yet mandatory reporting is essential to understand the multidimensional phenomenon of suicide and to better evaluate trends, patterns and relationships in the data.

More than ever, the first responders who risk their lives to protect us need a lifeline of their own. It is high time to provide first responders with the essential resources they need to deal with a mental health crisis of historic proportions.

Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and opinion pieces.See our guidelines.

Leave a Comment