Studies Show PTSD and Suicides are Increasing Among Firefighters
Each year, over 800,000 individuals die by suicide worldwide. 40,000 of those individuals are citizens of the United States. Among the figures compiled by the World Health Organization a subset of individuals within the group of people taking their own life is emerging: first responders.
Over the past decade, there’s been an acknowledgement within America’s first responders community that suicide and attempted suicide has become more prevalent. As the numbers of those at-risk individuals continue to grow, so too does the concern to quickly understand why this phenomenon is occurring. This alarming trend of suicides among first responders has been has been attributed to several causes, mainly post-traumatic stress disorder.
First responder suicides are sometimes compared to those among military veterans, many of whom have also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Moreover, according to report by the International Association of Fire Fighters, almost 20 percent of firefighters and paramedics have some form of PTSD, compared with the general population’s rate of 3.5 percent. Depression, addiction, and a difficulty to express the horrific patient calls that firefighters undergo are all reasons cited for the increase in suicides.
J.W. Boffa 280 et al. / Journal of Psychiatric Research 84 (2017) 277e283
The data suggests that the phenomena of firefighters taking their own lives is a recent trend. A 1979 study by A.W. Musk found rates of firefighter suicide deaths comparable to that of the general population. However, more recent evidence suggests higher rates among firefighters. A 2016 nationwide survey of 1027 current and retired firefighters in the United States by L.H. Stanley compared those results with the 1979 Musk study. What Stanley found was that there was an increase in rates of suicidal thoughts (46.8%), plans to commit suicide (19.2%), and actual attempts (15.5%). Additionally, according to a 2015 article published in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services a survey of more than 4,000 first responders found that 6.6 percent had attempted suicide. This is more than 10 times the rate of attempted suicides in the general population, a notably rapid increase from previous years. These findings align with anecdotal reports from fire departments and national fire service organizations that suicide is prevalent within the fire service and must be addressed.
Rising awareness of PTSD among firefighters has prompted several groups to start looking more closely at these deaths in recent years. In 2011, a group called the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance was founded by Jeff Dill, a retired Illinois fire captain turned Licensed Professional Counselor. The FBHA’s goal is to provide behavioral health workshops to fire departments and EMS organizations to focus on behavioral health awareness. Dill hopes that this classroom and counseling strategy will help prevent suicide by promoting resources available to firefighters and their families. Jeff Dill emphasized that when symptoms occur, they need a support system in place that is readily accessible from someone who is qualified and truly understands his or her circumstances. In addition to addressing firefighter suicide the FBHA also offers courses in behavioral health issues such as depression, anxiety and addiction for those that serve and their families.
Another organization, the Code Green Campaign, was founded in 2014 when a group of first responders in Washington decided to post anonymous stories from other first responders about their personal struggles. The goal of posting the stories is the hope that sharing the horrific tales will circumvent the stigma that prevents many from talking about personal matters with their crews. Code Green’s goal is to bring awareness to the high rates of mental health issues in first responders and reduce them as well as to educate first responders on self and peer care to bring about systemic change on how mental health issues are addressed.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues due to PTSD please do not hesitate to reach out to these agencies or find local resources to get the help you or your loved one needs.