NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Every year, more law enforcement officers, firefighters and corrections workers are lost to suicide than to on-duty crashes, accidents and assaults combined.
That’s according to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit that provides information and support for law enforcement officers, and the creator behind National Law Enforcement Suicide Awareness Day, which falls on Sept. 26 each year.
The same year as the inaugural Law Enforcement Suicide Awareness Day on Sept. 26, 2020, nearly 194 law enforcement officers, corrections officers, dispatchers, EMS providers and firefighters took their own lives. Four of those lost were Tennessee first responders.
Compared to 2020, Blue H.E.L.P.’s data collection shows suicide rates among first responders have increased, with 201 lives lost last year. So far in 2023, the nonprofit has reported 91 suicides impacting agencies and families across the United States.
Two of the deaths this year were in Tennessee — just one less than the three officers who have died in the line of duty in the state, two of which were killed in vehicle crashes. Since 2018, a total of 15 Tennessee firefighters and law enforcement officers have died by suicide.
According to statistics reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) by March 1, 2023, 118 law enforcement officers were killed in line-of-duty incidents in 2022, far less than the number of lives lost to suicide.
Of those, 60 officers died as a result of felonious acts — a 17.8% decrease from 2021 — and 58 officers died in accidents. Similar statistics are seen among EMS providers and firefighters. According to the CDC, EMS providers are 1.39 times more likely to die by suicide than the public.
Blue H.E.L.P., which was started in 2015, was the only organization in the country to collect law enforcement suicide data until the FBI launched the Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection (LESDC) on Jan. 1, 2022.
According to the FBI’s Memphis Field Office, the data is used to help agencies better understand and prevent suicides among current and former law enforcement officers, corrections employees, 911 operators, judges and prosecutors.
As of July 2023, 11 agencies had submitted information for calendar year 2023 and 25 agencies had submitted information for calendar year 2022. Of the 52 suicides reported by those agencies between Jan. 2022 and July 2023, 23.1% reported the individuals were likely suffering from depression.
Relationship problems also appeared to be a contributing factor in some deaths — something which the CDC reports is linked to nearly 42% of suicides among the general population. Researchers believe that may be magnified among first responders who often have challenging work schedules.
However, burnout, chronic illness and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were the potential contributing factors most commonly reported, with nearly 51.9% of reports suggesting the individual was suffering from one of those conditions before taking their own life.
Of the 13 attempted suicides reported during that same time period, 53.8% of first responders cited feelings of hopelessness, rage, anger, or anxiety at the time. Almost 70% of those individuals also said they had experienced depression.
According to a U.S. Department of Justice 2020 report on law enforcement officer suicide, nearly half of all states have seen a 30% increase in overall suicide rates since 1999, which could mean rising law enforcement officer suicide rates are part of a general societal trend.
However, the study notes that, given the high exposure to stress and trauma, as well as the plethora of other conditions for which officers seem to be at risk, it cannot be assumed that occupational factors do not matter.
In recent years, many agencies and nonprofits have been working to shed light on suicide rates and prevention resources for officers. Blue H.E.L.P. offers a long list of available resources such as CopLine, a 24-hour hotline answered by retired law enforcement officers.
The hotline offers a safe place for people to talk through daily stressors, as well as trauma and violence experienced on the job or off-duty. The hotline can be reached by calling 1-800-267-5463. To find more resources, click here.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a prevention network of 161 crisis centers that provides a 24/7, toll-free hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. If you or someone you know needs support now, call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org.