First Responder Reactions After a Suicide

Employees who have experienced the suicide of a co-worker lose more than just a colleague. Oftentimes they are close friends and confidants. Working the number of hours they do requires more time on the job than off, creating work “families” for employees. As a cloistered profession that keeps to itself, these groups of people share trust and kinship unique to most workplaces. Thus, when one of them takes his or her life by suicide, the result is often a deep and pervasive sadness that can never completely dissipate. We find that these employees will likely succumb to maladaptive coping behaviors such as increased use of substances (alcohol, drugs, over-the-counter medications), and high-risk behaviors such as driving recklessly or engaging in other dangerous or self-injurious activities.

Self-care issues become essential for employees who have either felt the loss of one of their own or are having thoughts about self-harm. It is crucial that these first responders use aggressive time management so that when they are off the job they are “on” something else. It is essential that they pay attention to their body/mind/spirit needs and appropriately address them in healthy ways. We are all aware of the importance of good nutrition, exercise, and sleep, however we are now seeing other ways to enhance employees’ health. These include helping them understand that growth can come through trauma. We are beginning to see the importance of helping these employees use their abilities to overcome trauma with an enhanced sense of purpose and value (even if they don’t feel this coming from their leadership), and making sure protective factors are in place, such as feeling connected to others, having healthy tolerance to stress, and keeping their personal priorities in order. The goal is to “work to live”, not “live to work”.

People who have experienced deep loss can achieve a positive outcome through what is known as “post-traumatic growth”. It allows for the opportunity to seek new possibilities and pathways, a deeper appreciation of life and relationships, personal strength that was not originally evident, and changes in spiritual beliefs and activities. Thriving under and through pressure is how first responder employees can manage negative effects of traumatic stress and live healthier, happier lives.

To that end, we must make it our priority to offer the best, most effective clinical services to these employees. In the clinical industry, there are a minority of counselors who have extensive experience working with first responder employees and their families. Oftentimes a call to the “800” number results in getting a clinician who is geographically close by zip code, versus having knowledge about the uniqueness of first responder experience. Working with employees who have had a bad clinical interaction has shown me that these individuals can come out actually re-traumatized by speaking with a clinician that does not understand the job, its language, and its profound effects.