Sometimes First Responders Need Help After Helping You

Could everyone reading this just pause for a bit and really think about our fellow citizens who, literally, put their lives on the line for us every day?

I’m talking about police officers and firefighters who face deadly dangers and serious stressors on a regular basis. Gruesome car accidents, raging fires with trapped victims screaming for help, domestic abuse calls that can easily end with officers injured or killed. Hostage situations and the ever-present possibility of having to respond to a mass shooting or bombing.  Blood, terror, death is a way of life for these brave first responders.

Can you imagine facing this kind of trauma every single work day? How would you cope?

The sad fact is a growing number of law enforcement officers and firefighters find it impossible to go on. The cumulative effect of all the shock bearing down on their soul’s day after day can lead them to face the final, ultimate demon – the urge to commit suicide.

In a recent white paper study by the Ruderman Foundation I was struck by the stark reality.  The opening paragraph announces, “Police and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.”

Digest that shocking line for a moment. Our community heroes, the ones who run toward danger while the rest of us run away, are so profoundly good at what they do they don’t die on their dangerous jobs nearly as often as they go home and take their own lives.

The Ruderman study reports that in 2017 suicide was the cause of death for at least 103 firefighters and 140 law enforcement officers. That is a suicide rate more than 5 times higher than the general population.

But according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, an advocacy organization that calls the increase in the number of firefighter suicides “jaw-dropping,” the under reporting at play here is significant. The FBHA estimates that only about 40% of firefighter suicides are actually reported. If that is accurate the number of suicide deaths of firefighters would be more than double the 103 reported, closer to 260 deaths.

Not mentioned in the Ruderman study, but just as important to my mind, are all those other first responders. Emergency medical technicians, paramedics, ambulance attendants and emergency room doctors and nurses. They are also routinely exposed to the most shocking and raw situations any person can face. Besides tending to those in the last throes of life they can encounter tiny murdered children, convulsive overdose cases, heart attack victims, grieving and inconsolable survivors. And each of these first responders do it because they care about their fellow human beings.

I personally know several first responders. They confirm other Ruderman Foundation findings. First, there are simply not enough mental health programs available to these brave men and women. “Of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States,” the white paper reports, “approximately 3 to 5% have suicide prevention training programs.”

Second, many of these dedicated people believe it could be career ending if they were to admit they need some mental health care. And they have good cause to feel that way. Stressed supervisors worried about filling positions grow impatient with a staffer who needs to make a therapist appointment or take days off to decompress after a grisly call.

In Florida, for example, following the Pulse Nightclub Shooting in Orlando (49 dead) and the high school shooting in Parkland (17 dead) those first responders who were diagnosed with disabling PTSD were not covered under workman’s comp for lost wages while they recovered. Late last month Florida’s governor signed a bill to rectify that but it was not in time to help Corporal Omar Delgado one of the first on scene at the gruesome Pulse Nightclub shooting. He found he couldn’t shake the blood-soaked scene and reached out for help. He took a few months off and was then placed on desk duty. With just six months to go before being vested in the pension system, he was fired. Delgado, a married father of three said, “I guess I’m being punished because I asked for help.”

It is time to lift the mental health stigma that most certainly affects a sizeable segment of our first responders. One cannot see what they see and do what they do month after month without some profound effect on their psyches. It costs a lot of money to train professional first responders. To toss them to the curb when they have problems or worse yet to force them into staying silent when they really need assistance helps no one. If they had a broken arm the department would wait for it to heal. So, if they have a broken emotional center doesn’t it make sense to help them heal that too?





  1. Diane Dimond on April 23, 2018 at 10:32 am

    Albuquerque Journal Reader Kathy Rush wrrtes:

    Hi, I read your article about First Responders and agree totally with it. But, for some reason, dispatchers are overlooked. They don’t usually need the same kind of counseling that those they dispatch, but there are other issues.

    I was a Police & 911 dispatcher, plus central telephone service for the PD here in Los Alamos. We obviously do not have the number of police officers and other personnel as a large city. When I was a dispatcher (I quit in 1998 after 15 years), there were only 4 dispatchers plus the supervisor. That meant that we shifted every 4 weeks. We had dayshift, swingshift, graveyard & rotating shift. The Rotator consisted of 1 dayshift, 2 graves and 2 swings each week. We worked 8 hr shifts although for a very short time we did team shifts. I was on B Team – these were 12 hr shifts that somehow we got, I think 2 graves and 2 days. One of the days was probably shorter than 12. I can’t remember it all now. I loved that shift. I felt that I got so much better sleep than the other shifts. Anyway, for the most part, dispatchers don’t have the angst, because mostly they answer phones and dispatch accordingly.

    However, we did have one dispatcher who tried to talk a person planning to commit suicide not to do so, and that person pulled the trigger while still on the phone. That dispatcher totally tuned it out for several years, probably until she was mentally able to think about it again. Once when I had a suicidal person on the line, I tried to talk him out of it also, but fortunately for me, he hung up the phone before pulling the trigger. One of the responding officers rushed back to the station to assure me that there was nothing I could have done.

    I’m not writing about me, but about dispatchers. We were listed as County Employees which meant ‘supposedly’ when the county closed, or there was a holiday, the regular county employees got those days off. We didn’t. We were expected in, even if someone had to come and get us due to the roads being full of snow. We did get holiday pay compensation, but not when we had to be there regardless of road conditions. Also, as shift employees being on duty when the officers were, we didn’t get 20 year retirement or even 25 year. I understand that for a short time after I left, dispatchers did qualify for 25 yr retirement, but that was removed sometime later. I don’t know why and I haven’t kept up with any of the present dispatchers to find out.

    Perhaps the really large dispatch centers have much better benefits, but there are a lot of very small police departments and it might be good for you to contact some of both categories to find out the ins and outs.

    I loved my dispatching days, but I quit because one day I came home from shift and couldn’t remember if I should put on civilian clothes or my pjs. I was worn out. It’s the most fascinating job I’ve ever had and I have lots of wonderful stories to recall.

    Kathy Rush, (formerly Disp3)

  2. Diane Dimond on April 23, 2018 at 10:33 am

    Facebook Friend Marc Brewer writes:

    that is a sad thing to read. we all need help sometimes.

  3. Diane Dimond on April 23, 2018 at 10:39 am

    Reader Harold Maio writes:

    • ” It’s time to lift the mental health stigma”

    It’s time to stop supporting people who say there is one, just as we did with rape/stigma.

    Keep in mind: No one who says there is a stigma means well, nor does anyone repeating them uncritically. We have accepted for too long their dominating the conversation in mental health.

    I recall only too well when the Women’s Movement told us to collectively stop directing that term at survivors of sexual assault, we had done enough harm. They did not “de-stigmatize” rape, they stopped us from declaring it. Similarly, no one “de-stigmatized” Jews following WW II. We did de-Nazify Europe.

    Here are some other responses to that term:
    • Dr. Insel (NIH)seems to agree that stigma has hampered research, but he takes issue with the term stigma:
    “It’s sort of a victim(izing) word,” says Dr. Insel. “I think what we’re trying to do is get more people empowered and trying to talk about this more as discrimination or injustice.”

    (What Insel, of course, means is our insistence on that prejudice has kept us from researching in the same manner we researched illnesses at which we have not directed that term. It was also so with HIV. We declined to react to it because it victims –at that time male gays- did not impress us as worthy. We just let them die. HM)
    • Some members of the behavioral health community are using more precise terms such as “prejudice,” “discrimination,” “bias,” and “social exclusion” to describe the negative attitudes and behaviors faced by people living with mental or substance use disorders.
    (Sadly, its is only “some”. HM)

    Dr. Kay Jamison at John’s Hopkins said it – “It’s not stigma, it’s discrimination that is preventing mental healthcare

    (She is echoing Insel: Yes, prejudice prevents. HM)

    Let’s Call Mental Health Stigma What It Really Is: Discrimination

    (One day perhaps we will all recognize that. HM)


    • Diane Dimond on April 23, 2018 at 10:45 am

      Sorry, Mr. Maio, I cannot agree that, “No one who says there is a stigma means well,…”

      I used the word “stigma” in this column and I mean well when I write about first responders with PTSD.

      Further, first responders with whom I’ve talked also use the word “stigma” to describe why they don’t seek mental health treatment. I beleive they mean well too.

      While I believe words matter it bothers me that we – society – get so worked up about the use of a particular phrase or word when really there is usually a much bigger issue at stake. The point of this column is: first responders take on the most traumatic jobs in our country and we should support them in anyway they can when the tribulations of their work effect their mental health.


      • Diane Dimond on April 23, 2018 at 12:35 pm

        Mr. Maio replies:

        No one who says there is a stigma means well. Those who said there was a stigma to Jews did not, it took us a while to realize that. Those who said there was s stigma to rape did not. It took us a while to realize that. Those who wish to educate positively mean well.
        • First responders who have lived thru trauma have used that word in conversations with me.

        Women who survived rape did as well. Societies influence the terminology we employ.

        The Women’s Movement, empowering itself, told all of us to stop declaring rape/stigma, we had done enough harm, and, the tipping point reached, the vast majority of us all stopped. It is interesting, examining history, what ceases to be the norm, when formerly discriminated against groups achieve position. People in the segregated south who jeered African Americans, now cheer African Americans at sports events, a total and complete reversal of behaviors.

        Sociology is an interesting study. Who we were, who we are, and who we become.


  4. Diane Dimond on April 23, 2018 at 7:35 pm

    Facebook Friend Donna R. Gore writes:

    New legislation being proposed in CT about this. Unfortunately, it will be part of the 1400 unfunded mandates to local towns. But there are other options for treatment in many cases.

  5. Diane Dimond on April 23, 2018 at 7:35 pm

    Facebook Friend Savannah Silver writes:

    I am a member of a number of groups where I have stated that they should be pared with Shelter Dogs, the clam of a Dog is priceless for a person feeling the emotions that surge through this people and their stress, any help. They are waiting to save a human …lets empty the shelters. Within reason of course, it has been proven that when a shelter has free adoptions, they shelters are emptied.

  6. Diane Dimond on April 23, 2018 at 7:35 pm

    Facebook Friend Pat Kelley Wittorf replies:

    I can certainly vouch for that statement. I know that all I have to do when I get stressed is cuddle one of my dogs for a while and I feel much better. Wonderful idea you have there but the logistics of it might be a bit tricky to work out.

  7. Diane Dimond on April 25, 2018 at 11:12 am

    Twitter pal stretmedic writes:

    @DiDimond I’m a paramedic and I have had friends who have suffered from PTSD, substance abuse and have died as a result. I think about them all the time

  8. Diane Dimond on April 26, 2018 at 11:37 am

    ABQ Journal Reader Judith Bissit writes:

    Hello Diane,

    I read your article about first responders and the fact that they need care for stress and burn-out. If you would like to visit a facility that is doing a great deal to help first responders and paramedics with stress and related issues, get in touch with Rachel Ortiz at Albuquerque Ambulance. Rachel contacted my pet therapy group to assist them to prepare for and train a therapy dog for their facility. They are now on their way to accomplishing this part of the program being developed. I recommend speaking with her to discuss the other elements of the program Rachel is working on.

    Thanks, Judith Bissett for Warm Hearts Network=

  9. Diane Dimond on April 29, 2018 at 1:32 pm

    Facebook Friend Robert B. Reno writes:

    Well as a paramedic I can tell you that the best way to relieve stress is to talk to someone who has been through the same thing.

  10. Diane Dimond on May 2, 2018 at 11:00 am

    Altoona Mirror Reader Bill Green writes:

    As a greiving parent of a police officer I found your colmun about first responders needing help very close to my heart.
    We just lost our 26 year old son March 10th for the very reasons you mentioned in your article. He hid from us the difficulty that he was having dealing with his use of deadly force that was necessary to save the lives of others until it got out of his control.
    When he did seek help it turned his life and dreams upside down. He faced the final, ultimate demon that you refer to and is gone from us far too soon.
    Someday I hope to be able to turn our greif into some form of positive help for those heros in blue before it is too late for another.
    Your column was run in our local paper, the Altoona Mirror, April 28th and I was very greatful that you found the words to write that I have not been able to do yet. I hope to be able someday to form a charity to honor my son that could be used to help other police officers that are suffering from PTSD get the help they need without the fear of losing everything the have worked so hard to accomplish with their lives.
    Thank you so much for the column you wrote about this problem because it needs to be brought into the open in order to get these first responders help.

    Bill Green

    • Diane Dimond on May 2, 2018 at 11:05 am

      Mr. Green,

      My heart goes out to you and your family and I’m so sorry about your loss. I hope your community realizes that it, too, has lost a tremendous asset. Police officers who dedicate themselves to helping others are a very special breed and we simply cannot afford to lose any of them.

      I sincerely hope the department in which your son served realizes its profound responsibility to make sure its officers know there will be no repercussions if they seek help for on-the-job stress and trauma. In fact, I believe all departments should make stress reduction training mandatory.

      My prayers are with you … DD

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