Emergency Services at greater risk of suicide

A man sitting on a couch

Suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged 25 to 44 years.

It’s a major cause for concern for the greater public, but especially certain high-risk groups.

Beyond Blue research shows that a first responder takes his or her life every six weeks.

Pressures on the job compound over the years and can lead to suicidal thoughts.

It can be the extension of other mental disorders, such as PTSD, depression or anxiety (all of which, emergency service workers are at risk of experiencing).

The pressures of life as a police officer, paramedic or firefighter include night shifts, poor diet, lack of sleep, time away from family, and constant exposure to trauma.

Poor workplace culture and practices are also damaging to a first responder’s mental health.

An ABC article reported that four Australian Federal Police officers killed themselves inside their own workplaces in two years.

Environments conducive to openness

One in four officers experience moderate to high psychological distress at any one time, according to Phoenix Australia data.

An issue that’s come to light is the individual fear to speak up, and thereby losing career prospects and pay.

First responders are afraid to let their guards down.

One ex-firefighter reported being “treated like a liability.”

He was diagnosed with PTSD and medically discharged from fire and rescue.

He was experiencing nightmares, flashbacks and sleepless nights, after he reached “about 40 fatalities.”

Emergency services is a line of work that attracts people who see themselves as ‘strong.’

This makes it even more challenging to be open and reveal inner struggles.

Departments, whether it be police, firefighting or ambulance, must change dynamics in order to create space in which to explore issues as they arise, particularly for men.

The ‘harden up’ culture is taking lives

The suicide rate of Australian men is three times higher than women.

More often than not, it’s a cultural issue, particularly with the ‘she’ll be right’ Australian philosophy.

Treat mental health issues, before they evolve into suicidal thoughts

Nothing can prepare first responders for extreme acts of violence, including suicides and brutal homicides.

These are scenes that no person should ever see, but for police officers, it’s part of the job.

This level of trauma needs to be processed and self-regulated, on a daily basis, otherwise symptoms continue to escalate.

John Marx, in his book ‘Armor Your Self’, calls this process ‘emptying the bucket.’

Suicidal thoughts are usually connected to a mental health disorder – which, for first responders, is often PTSD.

Symptoms vary from person-to-person, but can include:

  • Intrusive memories, like recurrent distressing visions
  • Avoidance, in terms of people or places that might be triggers
  • Negative changes in thinking and mood, such as hopelessness about the future
  • Different physical and emotional reactions, like being easily startled or always on guard.

It’s best to start this as early as possible into the career, as the effect of traumatic experiences build over time.

For first responders, the important part is not to wait until these symptoms escalate.

Use Marx’s ‘Bucket’ metaphor to manage your emotional and mental wellbeing.

That’s the real kind of strength you need.

Your line of work is like no other, so you deserve health support that’s designed for you.

Emergency Services Health is open to emergency service workers (and their families) only.

The Extras are there to be used, not just for your yearly check-ups. You have access to services includes psychology, counselling, and pharmaceutical.

You have your first responder family, and us. You’re not alone.

  • Lifeline – 13 11 14
  • Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636
  • MensLine – 1300 78 99 78
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