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FIRST RESPONDER TRAUMA
Individuals who are called to work as first responders often take the job in order to help people. These people are performance driven, motivated, “A” personality, and possess “warrior” traits. Needless to say, they are very proud individuals. First responders are the first to volunteer to go to an emergency situation where others would go the other way.
Because of this, they open themselves up to excessive amounts of stress. This stress if not coped with properly, will cause a wide variety of negative emotions. In the police culture, negative emotions are seen as a sign of weakness. This weakness prevents asking for help. This is a profession where weakness is despised. Those exhibit negative emotions are deemed weak and are shunned. This results in a negative self-worth that if not dealt with properly, may lead to substance abuse/addiction or behavioral addictions. These poor coping mechanisms are an effort to dull or forget the pain. It is ironic that they help people every day and would sacrifice their life for another, yet they cannot help themselves.
Normally, when we think about pain, we think about a cop being shot or a fireman being burned. Outsiders cannot see the wounds of PTSD, they are hidden. No one knows the pain they are in. PTSD is thought to only occur as a result of one single traumatic incident, but this is not true. First responders are particularly vulnerable to the cumulative effects of witnessing emotionally devastating scenes over a long period of time. Cumulative PTSD is considered far more difficult to treat than a single time critical incident PTSD because it builds up subtly and involves more incidents and is deeply ingrained in the heart of the first responder.
First responders are first on the scene of some of the most dangerous and demanding situations imaginable. In relation to police, society deems it necessary to have a “police force” that serves as the line between good and evil. This profession is very strenuous and emotionally draining. Police officers face a great deal of trauma on a day-to-day basis. The continual exposure to horrific trauma, life-threatening situations, and the physical strain of working long hours can lead officers feeling hopeless and helpless.
Not only are police officers exposed to the threat of physical harm, officers are constantly witnessing devastating and disturbing events such as murder, suicide, and extreme violence. Some experts believe that police officers witness 188 “critical incidents” during their careers. This exposure to traumatic events can lead to multiple mental health issues that often get untreated. For example, the rates for PTSD and depression among police officers is five times higher than that of the civilian population.
It is estimated that up to 30% of all first responders will develop PTSD over the course of their career. First responders are at a higher risk of suicide than any other profession. Police suicide is so prevalent that the number of police officers who died by suicide is more than triple that of officers who were fatally injured in the line of duty. Research commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation has revealed that first responders are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. In 2017, there were at least 103 firefighter suicides and 140 police officer suicides. In contrast, 93 firefighters and 129 police officers died in the line of duty. Researchers are attributing these statistics to the unique combination of easy access to deadly weapons, intense stress, and human devastation that police are exposed to on a daily basis. Thirteen out of every 100,000 people die as a result of suicide in the civilian population – that number increases to 17 out of 100,000 for police officers. During the 2018 calendar year, 167 law enforcement officers tragically took their own lives. As of August 2019, a total of 134 officers have committed suicide with four months of the year still left. Some experts say that these statistics don’t reflect the true number of suicides, as some families and police agencies chose not to report the cause of death to protect the officer’s and agency’s reputation.
Mariam Heyman, the lead researcher and co-author of a study by the Ruderman Foundation, believes that the key to ending police officer suicides is ending the silence that surrounds the issue of first responder mental health: “We should celebrate the lives of those lost to suicide – at national monuments such as the National Law Enforcement Memorial, in the media, and within police and fire departments around the country. Also, departments should encourage or require first responders to access mental health services annually. This will enable our heroes to identify issues early, and get the help that they need. It will save lives.”
There are approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the U.S., approximately only 5% currently have suicide prevention training programs and fewer have chaplaincy programs. If society insists on a law enforcement component to protect the people, we must protect those officers from the effects of that work. This means more training in proper coping mechanisms, transparency, and encouraging counseling whether in the form of secular of Christian counseling.
Heyman, Mariam. (2018). Study: Police Officers and Firefighters Are More Likely to Die by Suicide Than in Line of Duty. Retrieved
on 11th September 2019 from https://rudermanfoundation.org/white_papers/police-officers-and-firefighters-are-more-likely-
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