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Report Says First Responders Most Likely to Die by Suicide

UPDATE: June 19, 2018, This story has been edited to add information about Texas firefighter suicides.

A report by the Ruderman Family Foundation shows 103 firefighter suicides and 140 police officer suicides in 2017. That compares to 93 deaths in the line of duty among firefighter and 129 among police last year, meaning first responders are more likely to die by their own hand than on the job.

The report goes on to say that police and firefighters are also five times more likely to suffer PTSD than civilians.

Much of the reason behind elevated rates of suicide among first responders is a direct result of repeat exposure to trauma situations on the job, the report states. But that's only part of the picture. Jeff Dill, founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, says high suicide risk among first responders is a result of what he calls “cultural brainwashing.”

Dill says the constant need to be the ones giving help and not asking for it, of being the tough guy in a bad situation, takes its toll on first responders.

"That's tough to live up to, 24/7," he says.

Texas leads the country in number of cumulative suicides among firefighters, according to statistics from the FBHA. Of 1,157 firefighter suicides dating as far back as 1880 in the United States, 75 have occurred in Texas.

Dill also says "there’s no discrimination" as to who is most at risk.

"It doesn't matter if it's volunteer or career, city, suburban,rural, male, female, or rank," he says. The risk is evenly distributed among frst responders.

While numbers have been increasing in part due to better reporting, the better reporting part gives Dill some hope. Better reporting, he says, means increased focus on the emotional struggles of first responders, which should bring suicide rates down

Fort Worth Police Chief Jeff Halstead says it's important for departments to invest in ways to reach officers before they get to a bad mental state.

"There are some very innovative and creative programs and we've got to expose these to the young officers," Hallstead says. "They're not trained in the impacts of this stress."

Bringing down suicide rates among first responders could take a while, though. According to the Ruderman Foundation there are 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States, and only 3 to 5 percent have suicide prevention training programs.

Scott Morgan has been an award-winning journalist since 2001. His work has appeared in several newspapers and magazines as well as online. He has also been an editor, freelancer, speaker, writing teacher, author, and podcaster.