CHICO, Calif. — After a particularly harsh fire season like this one, stories of the harrowing and hazardous circumstances that firefighters face on a daily basis become almost commonplace. And for officers in law enforcement, it's no secret that they put their lives on the line everyday.
However, data increasingly reveals that firefighters and police are much more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
A recent study from the Ruderman Foundation found that 93 firefighters and 129 police officers died in the line of duty across the U.S. during 2017. During the same timeframe, 103 firefighters and 140 police officers died due to suicide.
"You take long hours away from your family and you get people fatigued...and now you're responding to a gnarly vehicle accident or a suicide." said AJ Mount, a war veteran and current firefighter with Cal Fire.
"Formalized training to address the behavioral health issues that haunt the men and women of the fire service is long overdue."
— National Council (@NationalCouncil) October 18, 2018
For Cal Fire, the phenomenon is an open secret. In Butte County, officials acknowledge that more firefighters die by suicide than in the line of duty, but they do not have an exact number due to an enduring stigma in regards to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicide.
"What happens with first responders generally is they are taught at the beginning to get through it and put emotions aside," says Katy Luallan, a therapist for firefighters. "As they experience trauma, going to accidents, medical calls, and fires, those things start to add up."
"In this industry, in law enforcement and in the military, there still is a stigma that goes along with it," Mount said. He says that he has lost two friends in the military and one firefighter colleague to suicide.
An organization called the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) agrees, estimating that only about 40 percent of firefighter suicides are reported — which, if true, would bump up the Ruderman Foundation's count of firefighter suicides in 2017 from 103 to about 257. That number would equal about twice the number of firefighters who died in the line of duty.
So far in 2018, there have been at least 43 reported cases of suicide among firefighters nationwide.
"For me, I've found different positive outlets. Working out is a big one for me — doing Crossfit and things of that nature. It's healthy for my brain and it's a good release," Mount said.
The Ruderman Foundation found that professions that "prioritize bravery and toughness" tend to hold onto the stigma and shame of mental health issues more than most, and may keep those struggles out of the public eye. Of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the U.S., the Ruderman Foundation reports, only about 3-5 percent have suicide prevention training programs.
"If I see someone and I think they're struggling, I'll ask them and I'll say 'hey, how are you doing? You seem a little different, what's going on?'" Mount said.
“We need to end the silence that surrounds the issue of first responder mental health. We should celebrate the lives of those lost to suicide – at national monuments such as the National Law Enforcement Memorial, in the media, and within police and fire departments around the country,” said Jay Ruderman, President of the Foundation. “Also, departments should encourage or require first responders to access mental health services annually. This will enable our heroes to identify issues early, and get the help that they need. It will save lives.”