There’s a dark side to increasing awareness of suicide among first responders.
In the past, there was silence. Police services would quietly cover up the suicides of one of their own, in an effort to sidestep the shame and stigma that they assumed would go with such a thing…thereby contributing to that stigma, by making suicide something that couldn’t be discussed.
Today, we do the opposite. A suicide by a first responder is now announced in the media within hours; the annual counter goes up by one as we track the suicide statistics; Twitter and Facebook light up, as we respond with heartfelt dismay to yet another tragedy. Light is being shone in the places where there was once only darkness. The shame of suicide is reduced; it’s no longer viewed as a dishonourable act, but instead, for what it is: The final, fatal symptom of an insidious, festering wound.
This increased awareness, we sincerely hope, will save lives. It will encourage those in pain to seek help. It will force the authorities to provide the desperately needed services.
Unfortunately, the reporting of first responder suicides can also have a downside: It can create the impression that suicide is the inevitable, “natural” result of PTSD.
When “PTSD” and “suicide” become linked in the mind, the diagnosis can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. And that’s the last thing we want to happen, when the whole point of raising awareness is to save lives.
In fact, PTSD does carry a serious risk of suicide. But, it’s very far from inevitable. Many people will struggle with their traumatic memories for the rest of their natural lives; many will benefit significantly from treatment; some will find their own ways to heal. Only a few will attempt suicide; fewer still will die.
But those are the stories that grab our attention. The stories of recovery and hope are out there…but they’re buried in the back of the paper. Stories of recovery don’t go viral within minutes of being posted; stories of recovery don’t get added to an annual counter.
We must remember: The lives lost to suicide are getting the attention in the media now. Not all who are exposed to trauma will get PTSD; not all with PTSD will try to end their lives. Most live; many get better.
So that’s the first part of my advice to those who are triggered by media stories of suicide. Remember this: My story doesn’t have to end like that. I can get a lot better from here. Feeling like this means I need to get help. And help is out there.
And here’s a great way to make sure your story isn’t added to the count someday.
You need a buddy.
First Responders and Veterans know you don’t go into a dangerous situation without letting someone know where you are.
When the black dog is stalking you, you’re in a dangerous situation. You need to tell someone where you are.
Right this moment, think of who you will tell if you’re in that dark place. If you find yourself thinking about suicide…if you’re looking for the means, weighing the options, or loading the weapon…make yourself this promise, right now: I’m going to tell someone. And right now, you need to choose who that person will be: Your best friend, your spouse, your family doctor, your psychologist…. Who will you call? Who will your buddy be?
You’ve got someone who will be there for you, someone you can trust, someone you know will move heaven and earth to help. That’s the person you’re going to decide, right now, before you need it, that you will tell.
Make yourself that promise. And make that promise to the person that will be there for you, because, guaranteed, they want to help.
--Dr Jonathan Douglas
With thanks and profound appreciation to Dr Dee Rajska for the concept of the Buddy System as a way to get through the darkest times, and to Badge of Life Canada for suggesting the post.