Responder Depression, PTSD, and Suicide

This week the world lost two celebrities to suicide. These losses are absolutely tragic, and even if you didn’t know them personally, it raises awareness of mental health matters. In the last few days the world also lost many people to suicide that so many of us don’t know, but they were a son, daughter, father, mother, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, cousin, friend, spouse, lover… Some of those were also responders, dispatchers, doctors, nurses, or others that deal with tragedy every day and make our communities safer. They may have been a coworker or colleague. A brother or sister on the line.

Despite a lot of efforts to change perspectives, depression, PTSD, and suicide are still labels that are associated with shame and weakness. There is nothing shameful or weak about them. They are a reality of life. If you haven’t been effected by them directly, you know someone who has.

When you work in public safety, you deal with some pretty bad shit. Not just once, but over and over. You see people at their worst. Your see death and devastation. You see hopeless and desperate people. Broken people. Sadness and anger. We see more than most people do. On top of that, we deal with our own personal issues. Maybe a divorce, illness of a family member, or death of a pet. Finances might be tight.

How do we deal with it? We build walls. We make it impersonal. We stay professional and work in the moment, focusing on what needs to be done. But what do you think about after the call? Or the next day? Or even years after? Sometimes it doesn’t hit you right away. Sometimes it’s something completely different that triggers memories and emotions. What then? Maybe we shrug it off, or maybe we shut down for a while and have a bad day. But that bad day turns into another and another. Soon you may not be able to remember happiness.

What should we be doing? Talk to people. Maybe a coworker, a friend, or a mental health professional. If you are in a paid service, you may have an employee assistance program. Fuck the stigma, the shame, and the macho bullshit. This is as serious as cancer or a heart condition. You can’t ignore it and expect it to go away.

Maybe it’s not you, but a friend or coworker. You notice changes. Irritability. A lack of focus. Dramatic loss or gain of weight. Alcohol and drug abuse. Talk to them. Find a professional to talk to them. Yeah, it’s a tough call to make, but it could save their life.

Depression, PTSD, and suicide suck. We can’t ignore their impact on society and on public safety professionals. We need to work harder to end the stigma and ensure better access to services so people can get the help they need and stop suicides.

©️ 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

2 thoughts on “Responder Depression, PTSD, and Suicide

  1. Tim,
    As a Paramedic and Emergency Manager with a working PTSD diagnosis I cannot agree with you more. As a profession…. hell, as a brotherhood and family, we have to come to grips with this. We armor ourselves against what we see and do so that we can wake up and do it again tomorrow. When that armor cracks we slap more armor on it and patch it over and over again because expressing weakness is like blood in the water in a tank full of sharks.

    In EMS, more than any other public safety/healthcare clan IMHO, we tend to eat our own young. As a culture we have not learned how to nurture ourselves or each other. It’s always “get up, brush some dirt on it and you’re ok”, or “good natured” ribbing and abuse since the only way we express love and respect for our peers is by picking on them. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard (and said) “We pick on you because we love you. Be worried if we ignore you!”

    I finally realized I had a problem after my partner found me sitting on the floor in a bunkroom almost catatonic after a call triggered me. She was the adult where I had lost the capability to be. SHE put our unit out of service and called a friend who was a licensed counselor who came to the station and talked me down. SHE made sure that I didn’t macho-up and just rub some dirt on it. SHE drove me home and made sure that my family knew what happened. SHE made sure the supervisors didn’t overreact and then helped create an employee mental health program above and beyond the Employee Assistance Program that everyone thought was adequate.

    I owe her my career, and probably my life.

    If you’re out there reading this Vonda – Thank you.

    1. Aaron,
      Thanks very much for that. I personally know it takes a lot to put all that out there. Thanks for your service to the public and much appreciation to you, your family, and your colleagues for helping you endure.

      You are right that we can no longer sustain with just the layers of armor we apply. Agencies and organizations need to be proactive in addressing the mental health needs of their people. It makes a world of difference and saves lives.


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