In 2017, Congress designated October, 28, as National First Responders Day - a day devoted to honoring first responders.
This genre of heroes - firefighters, police officers, Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), and public safety communicators are men and women called to serve those in immediate crises. Tragedies such as 9/11 and The Boston Marathon Bombing, along with the devastation caused by hurricanes - Dora, Andrew, Matthew and most recently Ian, exemplify the severity of emergencies first responders willing embed themselves in.
Americans know the importance of calling 9/11. Sirens blare to answer a myriad of all things dangerous and even sometimes kind, i.e., rescuing a dog stranded in a rising current or retrieving kittens stuck in trees and sewer drains. But what many Americans may not know about these heroes is the rate at which first responders commit suicide.
According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), more first responders die from suicide than in the line of duty. Describing suicide as a significant and complex health issue complicated by socio-demographic, medical, economic and occupational factors, the CDC noted that first responders remain under “acute and chronic occupational stress,” leading to an increased risk for mental health issues including “hopelessness, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, as well as suicidal behaviors such as suicidal ideation and attempts.”
The Ruderman Family Foundation, a private philanthropic organization that advocates for people with disabilities, conducted a study that resulted in discovering shame and stigma as underlying themes for first responder suicide. And while studies show suicide as the leading cause of death among first responders, they also show that many first responder suicides go unreported.
Two years ago, the U.S. House and Senate approved funding for the Helping Emergency Responders Overcome (HERO) Act, legislation that gave the CDC the ability to create a Public Safety Officer Suicide Reporting System. This system collects data from death certificates as well as coroner, medical examiner and law enforcement reports to “provide opportunities to better understand suicide fatalities and the circumstances around those fatalities among first responders.”
In light of these alarming statistics, public health institutes are also stepping up to provide first responders assistance to understand the underlying causes of suicide and how to sidestep the ideation and/or act of.
LSF Health Systems, a Jacksonville-based, state-funded behavioral health service that works in tandem with the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) is spearheading a new First Responder Peer Support Program. Funded by a DCF grant under the direction of Dr. Christine Cauffield, LSF Health Systems’ CEO, the free program is available to current and former first responders and immediate family members within a 20-county area throughout Northeast Florida and North Central Florida.
The First Responder Peer Support Program is composed of current and former first responders and members of the military trained as peer specialists. Those in need simply dial 211 and identify themselves as a current or former first responder or a member of a first responder’s family. Callers will be screened and connected with a first responder peer specialist within 48 hours. Callers then work one-on-one with a trained specialist who “listens, offers support and identifies available resources.” A long-term plan that allows first responders to “stay fit for duty” follows suit. Peer specialists then regularly reconnect with those in need for “check ups.”
The need for the program cannot be overstated. First responders admit to seeing it all - the good, the bad and the ugly; trauma that’s described as chronic. As we bake cookies and praise these noble men and women, how many truly consider the list of awful they face - Every. Single. Day. Fatal fires; car crashes; gunshot wounds; stabbings; domestic violence beatings and/or murders; hit and runs; overdoses, suicides; school shootings; terrorism; animal cruelty, the list is endless. What the public runs away from, these men and women run into.
According to Dr. Cauffield, trauma becomes encoded in human cells, thus affecting us physically, emotionally and spiritually.
“First responders face trauma on a daily basis,” she continued. “This trauma can lead to post traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety which leads to relationship issues, alcohol or drug abuse, as well as suicide attempts and completions.”
Describing the First Responder Peer Support Program as essential for first responders who need to speak to someone who “has walked in their shoes,” Dr. Cauffield underscored the need for first responders to address the fatigue of trauma.
“Peer specialists help first responders - and their families - deal with chronic responsive trauma,” she continued. “This First Responder Peer Support Program is about sharing with those who know. And knowledge is power.”
Dr. Cauffield added that this population, dedicated to serving others, often struggles in silence, not willing to appear weak before their colleagues, knowing that “this is what I signed up for.”
“Therefore, more die by suicide than are injured on the job,” she said.
One peer support specialist - a female EMT who wishes to remain anonymous - stressed the importance of everyone knowing that trauma fatigue is “real.”
“People assume that you’re a super hero that can accomplish everything and cure everything,” she said. “But we’re humans. And after 15 years of service, one incident just pushed me over the edge.”
She described herself as becoming frozen, bearing scars that no one could see.
“I couldn’t make decisions,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep. I became anxious in crowds. I had a general fear of things. I cried. I was broken. I knew something was wrong, I just didn’t know what it was. You’ve heard of fight or flight - well there’s also freeze. And I could not move.”
Determined to get better, she sought professional help and now serves as a Peer Support Specialist.
Not surprised, Dr. Cauffield said that most first responders don’t recognize the impact of how trauma affects their daily schedule.
“Because our first responders are so committed to helping, the cases that cannot be fixed often come with guilt, self-loathing, self blame and an idea of what did I do wrong?” she said. “Feelings of worthlessness lead to depression and at times desperation.”
Dr. Cauffield gave a nod to First Lady Casey DeSantis for spearheading the grant given to LSF Health Systems while professing her own commitment to the program.
“The First Responder Peer Support Program allows these brave men and women, dedicated to the call of duty to stay fit for duty,” she concluded.
Counties served include Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Clay, Columbia, Dixie, Duval, Flagler, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Lafayette, Levy, Madison, Nassau, Putnam, Suwannee, St. Johns, Taylor, Union, and Volusia.
For more information contact: First Responder Peer Suuport Program