The leading cause of occupational death among Colorado’s police and other first responders is suicide, mirroring a disturbing national trend that’s challenging public safety leaders to offer better support.
A statewide study found 196 suicide deaths among Colorado first responders between 2004 and 2014 — three times the number of lives lost in the line of duty. Denver has lost five first responders to suicide in just the past year.
Nationwide, more police, firefighters and other first responders died in 2017 by suicide than from all causes of death in the line of duty combined — from car accidents to shootings. Three times as many police officers (140) took their own lives than were fatally shot (46), according to a study commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation.
First responders frequently face disturbing and traumatic events, often involving injury and death. Exposure to trauma puts them at greater risk for anxiety, depression, alcohol and substance abuse, strained relationships, post-traumatic symptoms, such as sleep problems and heightened reactivity — and suicide.
“Suicide is a symptom of trauma,” says Dr. John Nicoletti, a board-certified specialist in police and public safety psychology. “In order to prevent a suicide, the person has to self-report or there has to be a detector. We need increased awareness around suicide. If you see something, say something.”
Dr. Nicoletti advocates training supervisors and colleagues to be detectors who know what to look for — the types of suicide triggers — macro, which are traumatic external events, and micro, which is what’s going on inside a person’s head. Peer-to-peer support is a critical component of suicide prevention.
Don’t assume someone doesn’t really mean what they’re saying about suicide, or that they’re just having a bad day, Dr. Nicoletti says.
"Silence is deadly,” researchers conclude. It conveys a lack of acceptance or stigma that stops many from receiving mental health services. Of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, fewer than five percent of departments had suicide prevention programs at the time of the Ruderman study.
Denver Public Safety has one of the best policies in the country, according to Dr. Nicoletti. Staff, their spouses and children can come visit with anyone at Nicoletti-Flater Associates, at no cost to themselves and with no limits on the number of sessions.
Emergency responders from across Colorado have joined together to improve suicide-prevention efforts, creating ResponderStrong organization in partnership with the National Mental Health Innovation Center at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. The group has grown from 35 members in 2016 to more than 500 today.
“Trauma is an injury … like a broken leg,” says Rhonda Kelly, a 17-year veteran of the Aurora Fire Department who is now director of ResponderStrong. “There are physiological and neurological changes. Neurotransmitters are in overdrive. Responders are going to be impacted. But they can recover.”
In 2017, ResponderStrong surveyed more than 768 emergency response leaders across Colorado about the mental health of their personnel and their resources to address the issue.Most leaders saw the primary barriers to care boiling down to three main factors: a culture of stoicism and the lack of time and money.
ResponderStrong calls for departments and staff to reject the view that a normal human response to continual stressors is a sign of weakness that must be hidden. Just like caring for the community, It takes strength to take care of yourself and your colleagues when needed.
In addition to Nicoletti-Flater Associates, public safety staff have access to additional resources through their own agencies, the City and County of Denver and the State of Colorado. Click
for more information.
“Always remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem,
smarter than you think and loved more than you know.”
— Christopher Robin, A.A. Milne