Some Virginia first responders experiencing depression, suicidal thoughts

A blurred police car in the background behind yellow crime scene tape.(Getty Images/iStockphoto/aijohn784)

A survey taken by about 4,900 first responders in Virginia this year shows that significantly more people working public safety jobs are experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts than everyone else.

According to the survey, about 8% of those who responded to the survey admitted to having recent suicidal thoughts. That’s about double the number of those in the general population who consider taking their own lives. The survey notes that due to preemployment screening practices, those who embark upon public safety careers are often considered to be healthier than the general population.

According to the report:

“Suicidal thoughts are linked to other serious problems as well. Those who endorsed suicidal thoughts were more likely to be depressed and angry or confrontational. They were also more likely to suffer from reactions to traumatic experiences: the more reactions they reported, the more likely they were to report suicidal thoughts.”

The survey was originally designed to track the mental health of those in the Fairfax County Police Department, but with the help of a local police union, it was ultimately distributed to 25 other public safety agencies across Virginia, including police and firefighters in Arlington and Prince William counties.

The Behavioral Analysis United of the U.S. Marshals Service tabulated the results and came up with a few key take-aways from the survey:

  • Agencies should be open with their employees and the public that the job takes a toll on the mental health of first responders.
  • Agencies should endorse the idea that it’s “okay to not be okay” and destigmatize officers who ask for help.
  • Let officers and public safety employees know there are proven treatments for the problems they and their colleagues are reporting.
  • And be sure to develop prevention and wellness programs first-responders can use to mitigate some of the effects of the job.

The report suggests that police officers, firefighters and those doing other public safety jobs should not be expected to be immune to their high-stress work environments, noting: “the ‘suck it up’ attitude, expecting first responders to be superhuman while day after day seeing the worst that society offers, is contributing to poor mental and physical health.”

The survey was not just focused on suicidal thoughts, even though the report said more public safety officers die by suicide than in the line of duty.

Another significant issue that police and fire departments need to be focused on is the increase in the rate of depression the longer first-responders are on the job. Of those who responded, 23.7% said they suffered from depression because of their work.

The most experienced police officers and firefighters, according to the survey, are more likely to quit their jobs than seek help, due to a thought that their depression symptoms could not be eased through a combination of therapy and work-validated wellness programs.

Of those surveyed, 24.3% of those who selected “Depression” as a work-caused concern reported having recent suicidal thoughts. Only 2.9% of those that did not select “Depression” reported having recent suicidal thoughts. (Courtesy Fairfax County Police)

The goal of the police union’s survey, according to the report, is to encourage police and fire departments across Virginia, and beyond, to do a better job of helping their employees deal with the stress of their jobs.

Dan Friedell

Dan Friedell is a digital writer for WTOP. He came to the D.C. area in 2007 to work as digital editor for, and since then has worked for a number of local and national news organizations.

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