Where Are We Now?
Suicide Among First Responders
It’s been talked about that deaths by suicide are more common among first responders than line-of-duty deaths. In most first responder suicide cases, a firearm is the method, and job or relationship issues are the triggers. There’s often unsettled trauma involved in the person’s life as well, but it’s not always known. [If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, go here to check out some resources.]
In fact, very little is known in most cases until it’s too late. The truth is, we’ve always dealt with trauma in the first responder world and we’ve probably always been the front-runner for suicide numbers. So why are we talking about it now more than ever?
Just searching for stats on first responders and suicide rates can be confusing:
- In CY 2022, 492 Service members died by suicide, which is fewer than the previous year (524). (US Dept. of Defense Oct 2023)
- In 2019, there were over 47,500 suicide fatalities and an estimated 1.4 million suicide attempts in the United States. (National Violent Death Reporting System, 2015–2017)
- Suicide rates across the US reached an all-time high in 2021. (CDC Suicide Data and Statistics)
- Of medics surveyed who contemplated or attempted suicide, more than 50% felt a lack of support by management and/or a lack of training in their peer supports or therapists. (Reviving Responders, 2015)
The Numbers Don’t Add Up
We live in a more and more global society. We’re expanding in communications and information accessibility. We see and hear more, so we know more. Perhaps our emotional intelligence is expanding too, but our awareness of the need for better mental health is certainly expanding.
And yet, we still don’t have concrete, current numbers that feel consistent with our first responders’ mental health condition. It tracks though, since most depression is not reported and many suicides are not reported as suicides. So, how can we expect to get good numbers?
On top of that, studies take years, and disseminating the data takes long. It seems we’ll always be chasing information, stats, and data, but where will that get us? Why not just stop the bleeding now and analyze more later (or at the same time)?
Where Are We Going?
This is what FRC is trying to do—stop the bleeding. We don’t want to wait for more data. But we’re not stopping at reactive care; we want proactive care. While we support therapy and peer support systems that help teach coping mechanisms for our responders dealing with trauma, we want to see them build resiliency so that trauma doesn’t knock our responders down so easily.
Resiliency starts with you. It starts with taking care of the ones who take care of all of us. You need to put your own mask on first before you can effectively help others. Let’s do more of that. Let’s talk about self-care as a mode of resiliency. There are many, but let’s look at self-care to start.
The Power of Self-Care
Self-care isn’t being selfish. Self-care is making sure you’re well and your needs are met. It’s important to differentiate between needs and wants here. A mother wants to enjoy a quiet meal but her toddler is throwing spaghetti. She could attend to the toddler but she also needs to eat. There’s a balance, and any parent would know there are multiple ways to handle that scenario. So, let’s talk basics.
Self Check for Self-Care
Put your own mask on first. That’s the point of self-care. Are you fed? Have you slept? Are you physically well? Are you mentally well? Are you emotionally well?
We could go on, but the point is to self-check and assess your needs. You can’t pull your buddy out of a burning building if your legs are broken. Nor can you talk to a recent widow if the scene is giving you flashbacks. You need to be okay, and if you’re not, you need to address that.
It’s okay to not be okay, but let’s encourage each other to get better. Let’s support one another in times of need. We need each other to survive this job in this world.
How to Take Care of You
Resiliency starts with self-awareness. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve been in the job for long enough to see some stuff. Maybe it’s heavy, maybe it’s not, but self-awareness shouldn’t start after trauma happens. Do a quick self-check.
How are you feeling? Have you been eating well? Have you slept? Are you agitated? What do you notice affects you most? Is your temper shorter than usual today? Are you less social today?
Take a pause and reflect on your own needs for a moment. What are you lacking? How can you get it? Do you need to involve anyone else?
Remember, your body is affected by your diet, exercise, and sleep. Your mind is affected by your relationships, perspectives, and outside stressors. Take personal care of both.
- Make time for yourself (watch a movie, cook, take a walk, etc.)
- Practice deep breathing
- Plan for a good sleep (as much as possible)
- Hydrate and eat well
- Indulge in moderation (because those little enjoyments are important too)
- Find out what makes you happy
- Find out what makes you unhappy
- Set goals for yourself and make a plan to get there
The Self-Care Commitment
We build resilient responders by taking care of them. Who knows them best but the responders themselves? By teaching self-care techniques and self-awareness, we can better manage our own stress and responsibilities and, therefore, do our jobs better.
Let’s change the numbers, but let’s not wait to collect more before we start. We need to bring awareness, true, but we need to do more than that. We need to start with ourselves.
Sometimes, you may need to step aside or focus more on yourself to better help others. That’s okay. That’s why we’re here. We want to see you well. You’re our heroes, our supporters, our first responders. We want to build a community of responders who are ready for the job and able to achieve success. Make a self-care commitment today to be a better responder, a better citizen, and a better you.