OKEECHOBEE — This article discusses mental health and suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide or experiencing mental health or substance use crisis, dial 988 for 24/7 access to trained crisis counselors. For help finding resources locally, call Our Village at 863-447-0473.
Often regarded as real-life superheroes, America’s first responders take on tremendous challenges. They witness unimaginable horrors and confront dangerous situations daily. These selfless individuals risk their lives to protect our communities. Unfortunately, our heroes are not immune to the mental health crisis plaguing America, in fact, their occupations place them at greater risk of mental illness and substance abuse.
More than 80% of first responders are exposed to traumatic events while on the job. Due to the traumatic stressors associated with their line of work, law enforcement officers, 911 telecommunicators, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel are at a heightened risk of acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. Compared to the civilian population, PTSD and depression are five times more likely in first responders, and an estimated 400,000 first responders have symptoms of PTSD. An estimated 20-30 percent of law enforcement have a substance disorder and 29 percent of firefighters abuse alcohol.
The stigma surrounding mental health and suicide, especially in the first responder community, has led to underreporting and discrepancies in data. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance that firefighter deaths by suicide are largely underreported, estimating only 40% are reported. Another report suggests somewhere between 125-300 law enforcement officers die by suicide each year. So far this year there have been 116 first responders who have died by suicide according to bluehelp.org. In 2018 the Ruderman Foundation commissioned a white paper revealing a harsh reality; first responders are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. Although the risk is evident and the numbers are staggering, it is estimated that only 3-5 percent of law enforcement agencies have suicide prevention training in place.
Okeechobee Sheriff Noel Stephen, in his 36th year of law enforcement and his second term as sheriff, gives his professional perspective on the mental health crisis and insight into how his office is addressing the issue locally.
When asked about his thoughts as to why some law enforcement officers avoid seeking mental health services, the sheriff pointed out that the majority of Okeechobee’s officers are male, and he believes there is this “male machoism that carries through." It shows a sign of weakness for someone to say they are struggling or have a problem. His explanation highlights the stigma society has attached to men and mental health issues. Other reasons first responders may avoid seeking help include the thought that stress is ‘part of the job’ and they shouldn’t talk about it, or that disclosing mental health concerns may label them as unfit for the job.
With the knowledge that first responders have higher rates of PTSD, depression, and suicidal ideation, as well as an understanding that some officers are apprehensive to disclose that they may be dealing with mental health issues, Sheriff Stephen has measures in place to help identify those members who are struggling. He explains things have changed and evolved since he began his career 36 years ago. “We now know that identifying those struggling sooner will only help and so we try to do that.”
Prior to employment, potential new hires are given a mental health screening, and crisis intervention training is provided for officers and supervisors. This training helps law enforcement identify issues in the field with the people they encounter and is provided after a critical incident, such as a fatal car accident. In addition to crisis intervention training, two employee assistance programs connect the officers to professionals, a dial-in line provides 24/7 assistance, and literature is readily available, all of which allow the officer to remain anonymous. Sheriff Stephen also explains that as a smaller, rural community, there is close camaraderie here that bigger agencies may not have. The closeness in the department, and in the community, helps officers identify differences in personalities and changes in behaviors quicker.
Sheriff Stephen also addressed the issues in the community. He acknowledged that there is a rise in the number of mental health-related calls from the public, stating that he is seeing second and third generations going through the jails. He attributes some of the issues to untreated childhood trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse. Noting limitations in budgeting, he emphasized the importance of collaboration between the sheriff’s office and organizations such as Our Village and Ritelife to provide essential services to the community to help break cycles and end the stigma.
We owe it to the men and women who protect and serve our communities to continue the conversation about mental health and suicide. We cannot allow shame, stigma, and misconceptions to stand in the way. Suicide is preventable.