Are We Losing the War Against First Responder Suicides?
By Wes O’Donnell, Managing Editor, InMilitary. Veteran U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on In Military.
Since the late 2000s, when the mental toll of the Global War on Terror started to become apparent, military veterans’ suicides have commanded national headlines.
The most common number was the now infamous 22 – the number of daily veteran suicides in the United States. Since then, caregivers have a much better handle on post-traumatic stress (PTS) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) as indicators of veterans who may be most at risk.
In recent news, an increasing number of suicides at Veterans Affairs facilities have prompted a bipartisan call to arms.
Yet while the nation and the veteran community both focus on awareness and action in combating veteran suicides, another group is quietly struggling with its own suicide epidemic: First responders.
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According to a study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than from shootings, traffic accidents and fires combined. In addition, the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FFBHA) estimates that only 40% of firefighter suicides are reported. This makes it likely that first responder suicides are much higher than previously thought.
Singer/Songwriter, Marine and Iraq Veteran John Preston is at the Heart of the Fight
I first met John Preston in 2015; we move in and out of the same veteran communities and our causes often cross paths. In fact, it was our joint passion for lowering the number of veteran suicides that brought us together.
Then the unthinkable happened.
While on tour in 2016, and about to go on stage in Sacramento, John got a call informing him that his brother Mike, also a Marine veteran and a police officer, had committed suicide.
John is now working to raise awareness of police and first responder suicides, an epidemic that has gone largely unnoticed. His newest project is the development of a t-shirt in partnership with patriotic, veteran-owned clothing manufacturer Grunt Style. The company wants to help fund a nonprofit whose goal is to honor, educate and prevent police suicide.
John will be speaking at the Blue H.E.L.P. Police Week 2019 dinner in Washington D.C. on May 11. “I was shocked that they haven’t raised the money that they needed to raise for the event yet,” he told me.
“Interestingly, I was on the phone the same day with both Grunt Style and Blue H.E.L.P., talking about different things and it occurred to me that I could make a shirt with Grunt Style that would financially support getting these families of these fallen officers out to D.C. for this event. So that’s exactly what we did. I worked with Grunt Style to design a shirt honoring my brother Mike and Grunt Style agreed to donate 100% of the profits of the t-shirt, after the cost of production, to Blue H.E.L.P.”
When asked about the impact of his music on police suicides, John says “people have written to me and told me that the song Superman Falls has saved their life. I consider that Michael’s save. He’s still saving people after he’s gone, just like he did as a first responder. This shirt is another opportunity for us to get the word out and save more lives. That’s what it is all about.”
The t-shirt goes on sale at Grunt Style Friday, May 3, and every penny goes to the nonprofit Blue H.E.L.P. to fly families of fallen officers to suicide to Washington, D.C., to honor and memorialize these men and women.
John says “the shirt itself has the look of a police uniform with the likeness of a Superman emblem as an undershirt with the letters MP in the emblem [for Mike Preston]. The hashtag on the back #theworldwillknow has been my mission since losing my brother, and it means that we are going to raise awareness of this epidemic.”
Winning the War Against First Responder Suicides Starts by Acknowledging the Problem
Like active duty military, first responders experience severe mental stressors every day that can lead to depression and PTS. As part of their job, police officers are often exposed to the worst of society, while firefighters are typically the first on the scene of medical emergencies.
According to Ruderman, “We need to end the silence that surrounds the issue of first responder suicides and 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.”
In professions that emphasize being tough and brave, mental health issues can easily be stigmatized. It’s up to leaders in law enforcement to light the way by assuring officers that there will be no judgment of individuals seeking help. Of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States, only 3%-5% have suicide prevention training programs. That percentage is unacceptable.
These are men and women who run toward danger to keep the rest of us safe. We owe it to them to provide all the tools and resources needed to keep them healthy, engaged and, perhaps most importantly, loved for the sacrifices they make on our behalf.
We can win this war against first responder suicides.
About the Author: Wes O’Donnell is a veteran of both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force serving a total of eight years of active-duty service. He has a MBA focused on IT management and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from American Military University. Wes is the director of the short film “Memorial Day” which earned Best Drama at the Oregon Cinema Arts Festival and Special Mention at the One Reeler Short Film Competition in LA. He is also a journalist with articles appearing in War is Boring, Soldier of Fortune Magazine and InCyberDefense.com.