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Suicide and the First Responder

(For Chad.)

I cannot tell you how many calls I’ve been on that involve a suicidal subject. A number of them have been quite memorable. Most have blurred together. As an EMT I've been on the rescue side of many suicides and suicide attempts. Most of the time we got them into the ambulance with their heart beating, but not all the time. These calls unfold quickly, and as a chaplain I’m not usually involved unless the suicides complete.

Last year a friend from my previous department completed suicide. I cannot fathom the pain that must have been in his heart and mind. I had moved to South Carolina a couple of years ago and lost daily contact, but friends at my old department told me they didn’t see this coming. This leaves me to wonder, as a chaplain in the fire service, how much of it was this job and the mark it left on him? How much was he troubled by the things that he saw?

The latest reports on suicide and first responders looks very bad. The horrible fact is that our first responders are more likely to die by their own hands than in the line of duty. While we in the fire/police service have worked very hard to put safety first and keep our line-of-duty deaths as low as possible, our folks are still hurting and ending their lives in real numbers. I am glad that our public safety services are starting to address suicide and mental health. But we have, though, a long way to go.

Things are stacked against us. Our jobs can be very demanding. While we may be considered superheroes to a lot of the general public, we are affected, sometimes deeply affected, by what we have to see and do. Multiple studies have shown that PTSD is still much higher for first responders than the general public.

As for suicide, take a look at the latest statistics.*

  • 46.8% of firefighters/EMTs have had thoughts of suicide. Each year, 18-31 out of 100,000 complete it (compared with 13 out of 100,000 for the general population).

  • 7.8% of police officers have pervasive thoughts of suicide. Each year, 11-17 out of 100,000 complete it.

These numbers are astounding, especially for our firefighters and EMT's. These are people who are supposed to be mentally stable in crisis situations. And with our law enforcement community, these are folks that have passed the psychological exams to be certified to carry a weapon.

As a first responder community, we must:

  1. Recognize that there is a serious problem out there. We need to continue to raise the awareness of this issue from our command staff clear down to the newest firefighter/police officer. This is something that affects all of us.

  2. Be willing to intervene and take care of each other. When a brother/sister is hurting and reaching out, we as a community must not wait, but act immediately.

  3. Lean on and empower our chaplains to address the mental/spiritual issues of our first responders. They are members of the team and need to be advocates for our people.

  4. Teach our new firefighters and police officers at the beginning of their careers the pitfalls of this career path and give them tangible, practical tools for getting help for themselves or others. We need to take a proactive stance instead of being reactive.

  5. Realize that the choice to end one’s life is very human and also a deeply spiritual (not necessarily religious) decision. It cuts to very core of who a person is and how they view the world around them. Though it may be very difficult for our first responder community to talk in this way, we must be willing to address our brothers and sisters on this level.

As chaplains, we must:

  1. Advocate for the mental/spiritual health of our people. Because of the nature of our jobs we often see what others do not. We must be willing to address the issue at the deep levels of the heart and the highest level of command. As chaplains we can, and must, provide hope.

  2. Continually be educated on what is stressing our first responders and what resources can help. New studies and treatments are constantly coming out. The police and fire service has changed over the last 20 years. We need to be aware and change with it.

  3. Be willing, 24/7, to intervene and get our people the help they need. This may mean making sure that our phone number is accessible to all our people, not just the command staff. This may also mean getting out of bed in the middle of the night or making sure our folks get to the hospital where they are out of immediate harm. We need to protect them.

  4. Be willing to refer to clinicians who can address imbalances in a person’s mental thoughts or body/mind chemistry. As a chaplain, I add this appeal: as we reach out and chose clinicians, we need to find ones that respect the person’s spiritual worldview.

Most of all we need to do everything we can for our brothers and sisters. It’s that important.

Chaplain Chris Wade

Vice President

South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association

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