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Grieving Behind the Badge: Why First Responders Commit Suicide
By Carl ToersBijns, former deputy warden, ASPC Eyman, Florence AZ
Published: 09/22/2014

Suicide prevention There appears to be a disturbing trend happening in the public service sector when it comes to suicides. There are too many incidents of suicidal deaths among police officers, correctional officers and although it cannot fully be explained as to why they did it or why it is happening because we cannot speak of certain circumstances except that these employees all share common thread as first responders, veterans of a military service branch and an enthusiasm for serving to protect and serve in various occupations within the public service sectors.

When you begin to research suicides the results are frightening. Their rate of killing themselves is much higher than the average rate nationally and should show a natural vulnerability to having suicidal thoughts while engaged in their jobs. It seems the toll takes on several concerns that include mental health stability, their physical health, addictions and their ability to deal with stress and secondary stress such as vicarious post-traumatic stress as a result of job related incidents.

The first step needing to be addressed is the provision of confidential counseling services to help cope with the stressors while recognizing the warning signs. Unfortunately despite of some of these individual efforts, there are no mass recovery tools available that allows many to fall between the cracks of this phenomena. Their job is filled with acute stress, social isolation, pre-existing mental illnesses, and substance abuse. A common link too many professional occupations has been found to exist among this group of workers and many others including doctors, nurses and lawyers.

One may wonder if the social pressures of the job or the workplace culture might push them into these critical conditions that sets them up for suicidal ideations and feelings of no hope for recovery. Normally filled with workplace energies and motivational spirits abound, there appears to be a force within this culture that drains them beyond their reserves of resilience making them vulnerable at times.

For both men and women in this work-related force, fearlessness and courage is a required ingredient. This puts a tremendous strain on their own psyche to feel pressured to project emotional and physical prowess, confidence and an ability to deal and manage anything placed on their shoulders. Carrying such pressures of expectation takes a toll on the best of the best and can create many self-doubting moments for them.

They feel they must masquerade as being strong and confident at all times. They must pretend to be untroubled even when they are struggling within themselves and identify sound judgment and decisions based on the moments in front of them. Many won’t admit they need help themselves. One thing is for certain – these internal pressures to excel and perform are real and won’t be reduced anytime soon. Their need to be infallible to make mistakes will not lessen as the world they live in changes rapidly and requires quick thinking and a limited legal ability to get the job done right. Their jobs as first responders will require them to step it up another notch as well as their ability to maintain a comprehensive understanding of what is expected of them by their agency and the public.

Monday morning quarterbacks and hindsight observations makes it emotionally hard for first responders to accept poor outcomes. They know that being blamed comes with the job but with the drastic increase of responsibilities they know the public and their own leadership does not realize how much the job overwhelms them and how it is marked with severe fatigue, errors on the job, fear of being harmed by others.

All this plus dealing with a severe sense of inadequacy as their job requirements change from moment to moment making up to date training almost impossible at real time strides. Keeping a charade of composure and humor to blend in with coworkers they sometimes believe they are in this struggle alone when in fact, their plight is more common than realized.

A fear of being exposed of this subconscious feeling they go into denial and refuse to confess there are issues they need to deal with in a timely manner and very often ignored until it is too late. The workplace culture does not allow them to be able to express or voice these self-doubts or fears. They are unable to talk about them and their emotional or physical impacts for the fear of embarrassment and possible shunning from others keeps them silent.

A culture that encourages us to share these vulnerabilities could help us realize that we are not alone and find comfort and increased connection with our peers. It could also make it easier for first responders who are at risk to ask for help. And I believe it would make us all better public servants.

Corrections.com author, Carl ToersBijns, (retired), has worked in corrections for over 25 yrs He held positions of a Correctional Officer I, II, III [Captain] Chief of Security Mental Health Treatment Center – Program Director – Associate Warden - Deputy Warden of Administration & Operations. Carl’s prison philosophy is all about the safety of the public, staff and inmates, "I believe my strongest quality is that I create strategies that are practical, functional and cost effective."

Other articles by ToersBijns:


  1. frydd666 on 10/26/2014:

    Excellent article! I have heard of some Emergency Systems starting up groups where a person could just go and talk to others in the same field. There are times that you do your best and it just isn't good enough. The outcome is less than favorable. I think it is natural for anyone to go back and ask themselves, "Did I do things right? Did I do all I could have done?" The problem is, a person can also begin to doubt themselves and their abilities. This can start a downhill slide that can lead to deep depression, the ending of a career, and possibly even suicide. It is important that these individuals get a chance to talk to others about what is going on. if the situation turns out bad, this is especially true. I know in Kansas, if you are charged as an EMT with criminal neglect, etc., You are judged based on what other EMTs of similar experience would do in that same situation. When judging your own performance, shouldn't the person get the same type of judgment? Many times we judge ourselves too harshly. As professionals we never want to make a mistake. We want everything to go exactly by the book. However, this does not always happen. We are still fallible and the situation is always different and changing. Talking to others in similar circumstances can really help. Again, excellent article on a very important topic! Thank you!

  2. banshidharsahu on 10/25/2014:


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