Survey finds 8% of first responders had recent thoughts of suicide

(NEW YORK) — Eight percent of first responders in 26 Virginia agencies had recent suicidal thoughts, according to a new survey.

The survey was released in the middle of National Suicide Prevention week by the Fairfax County, Virginia Police Department and the U.S. Marshals. Over 5,000 first responders from Virginia Beach to Arlington County admitted to having recent thoughts of suicide. By comparison, the national estimated rate of suicidal thoughts in the United States is 3 percent.

Encompassing 15 police departments, six fire and rescue departments, and five public safety communication centers, the survey results revealed that suicidal thoughts lead to other problems including an increase in being depressed, angry or confrontational.

“Even one person walking around [with suicidal thoughts] is troubling,” Fairfax County Police Chief Ed Roessler Jr. said in an interview with ABC News.

First responders, according to the survey, were more likely to suffer reactions from traumatic experiences. The more reactions they reported, the more likely they were to also report suicidal thoughts.

Other findings from the data: One out of four first responders said they suffered depression as a consequence of their job. Depression was more prevalent in those with more experience, but they were also more likely to talk about wanting help.

“Every day you go out in the community and see the worst in what a human can do to themselves and others. And you have to balance all of this as you get married, have children, and then you got to work and about 15 years it starts to creep in. It’s a vicious cycle,” the chief said.

According to the latest statistics from BLUE H.E.L.P, 143 police officers took their lives this year — a statistic that is on pace to surpass 2018’s number by more than 20 percent.

“The findings of [Fairfax County’s] study are significant and, most likely, an indication of what is going on with first responders around the country. While it’s notable that the majority of respondents said they have ‘never’ had suicidal thoughts, it doesn’t preclude them from being at risk in the future; especially with such a high rate of depression, reluctance to seek help and other factors,” Karen Solomon, the founder of Blue H.E.L.P., told ABC News in an email.

Solomon adds that the Fairfax County Police Department has been a partner with the organization, helping it organize a walk and video on law enforcement resources.

“The survey mirrors what we have been seeing around the country,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told ABC News.

The New York City Police Department has experienced law enforcement suicides in record numbers — nine active NYPD members have committed suicide so far this year.

Wexler commended the chief and said that the department is putting the survey results to good use and mentioned Fairfax County’s mental health checkup.

“Police officers are a higher risk for suicide than the general population,” Wexler continued.

Chief Rosseler said that the “data is only from a fraction of the 18,000 agencies in the United States,” adding that they are trying to create a national database to make reporting officer suicides mandatory.

The survey also showed that three out of ten respondents wanted to “tough it out” or handle it on their own, but feared the stigma attached with seeking help or that their employer would find out.

That stigma is something national law enforcement leaders are trying to weed out in local departments around the country. “There are 18,000 agencies across the country, we need to do better,” said the chief.

“You smash the stigma, you save lives,” said Jon Adler, a former police officer and the director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance at the Department of Justice.

Chief Rosseler said it’s about treating officers with “dignity” — especially those who have been on the force for more than 15 years.

“Discipline can always wait, the act is done, it’s evidence, let’s get them help,” he said.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

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