Mental health programs for our first responders must be improved, expanded

More than ever, the first responders who are putting their lives at risk to protect us are themselves in need of a lifeline.

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Chicago Police Supt. David Brown speaks about the increase in support from various districts in and out of state during a press conference announcing updates regarding the multi-district Vehicular Hijacking Task Force, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022 at the Chicago Police Headquarters at 3510 S Michigan Ave in Bronzeville. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago Police Supt. David Brown

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Chicago Police Department’s recent announcement of a third officer who died by suicide this month brings to light a perfect storm which first responders are facing not only in Chicago but nationwide — and it is imperative to provide them with the relief that they need.

Given the existing dangers of their work and now the toll exerted by the pandemic, first responders are enduring historically severe mental health challenges and alarming mental health outcomes.

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

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

Throughout 2020, first responders were also worried about transmitting COVID-19 to their loved ones and felt pressured to maintain physical distance from friends and family. This unique and troubling experience put excessive pressure on first responders.

The consequences of these stark realities are underscored in research published last month by the Ruderman Family Foundation, which found that 116 police officers committed suicide in the U.S. in 2020, compared with 140 in 2017. While those figures shows the number of suicides is down, the 2020 numbers are likely an undercount because of stigma and shame, 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 firefighter and EMS suicides stood at 127 in 2020, slightly higher than the 126 confirmed cases in 2017.

These findings follow the Foundation’s 2018 Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders, which revealed that police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty — a trend that still holds true today. Yet while the new stress and isolation brought into first responder’s lives by the pandemic has resulted in increased mental health programming and resources, first responder suicides had not meaningfully decreased as of 2020 (official 2021 data is still being updated).

In his recent press conference, Chicago Police Supt. David Brown demonstrated empathy for the ongoing mental health crisis among first responders, acknowledging that police officers “are human and they have struggles just like everyone else” and even more crucially, “the stigma of even talking to someone in our profession is a challenge.” Brown also announced CPD’s plans to provide around-the-clock mental health services, faith-based counseling and free confidential programs for current and former officers.

The measures that Chicago has taken in the aftermath of July’s suicides should serve as a reminder to police departments nationwide that programs to promote awareness of  mental health must be improved and expanded.

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Additional measures need to be taken, such as monitoring of the mental health of retired first responders and assessment of 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 first responder suicide and assist in reducing the grief of affected families and colleagues.

Additionally, mandated reporting of suicide deaths and non-fatal attempts is needed. Currently, no government institution requires reporting of such deaths or attempts. Yet mandated 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 are putting their lives at risk to protect us are themselves in need of a lifeline. It is high time to provide first responders with the essential resources they need in order to navigate a mental health crisis of historic proportions.

Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.

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