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One of the saddest aspects of my work has been to discover that emergency first-responders are at greater risk of death by suicide than the general population. Over the years, I’ve talked with several struggling with suicidal thoughts and impulses. I’ve also met with grieving colleagues after one of their team had taken his/her life. The sorrow and distress that followed impacted entire communities.
Why do emergency responders commit suicide? Why would they kill themselves after years or decades of saving the lives of others? Obviously, there are many reasons, unique to each person. However, in many cases there is an underlying depression that is exacerbated by work-related trauma accumulating over a career. Mental stability can be further compromised by substance abuse, work-related cancer, or other major health issues. Psychological pain and feelings of hopelessness can grow until death seems like the only possible escape.
What can be done to help?
First, it’s important to create awareness of this risk and provide a safe, confidential way for responders to get help. Utilization of available Employee Assistance Programs, peer counseling teams, department Chaplains, and local mental health professionals will only happen when fears of stigma and “fitness for duty” concerns are discussed openly throughout responder organizations. Leaders must demonstrate a compassionate, respectful attitude regarding suicide risk so that responders feel safe to get help.
Second, team members and managers trained in basic psychological first-aid are in the best position to identify who is struggling with suicidal thoughts and how to support them. Sometimes, genuine and kind interest may be enough to help. In other cases, an intelligent and caring referral is needed to save a life.
If you would like to learn more about how we help emergency responders and teams proactively care for their colleagues at risk of suicide, send me an email at email@example.com. Together, we can further reduce the frequency of this tragic event.
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