First responders 10x more likely to commit suicide, survey says

BUTLER COUNTY, Kan. (KSNW) – A Kansas EMS agency is starting a conversation about suicide prevention and the overall mental health wellness of first responders.

A survey of more than 4,000 first responders found that 6.6 percent of them had attempted suicide, which is more than 10 times the rate in the general population, according to a 2015 article published in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services.

“Most professionals that are first responders, they are there to help everybody else except they forget to help themselves,” said Butler County EMS Captain Josh Whiteside.

Josh Whiteside has been working in the EMS field for nearly 14 years.

“There’s actually several of us on staff, my self included, who have seen a lot of stuff and go and talk to professionals just to make sure we treat it and nothing comes of it,” Whiteside said.

Whiteside said talking to trained professionals about what he has seen on the job has helped him get through traumatic emergency calls.

“I think it was 2007. I was working and we got called out down to a wreck just north of Rose Hill and it ended up being a 19-year-old Rose Hill fire fighter who was unconscious. He was ejected from his vehicle. We lost his pulse just as soon as we put him on the back of the truck,” Whiteside said.  “That has stuck with me and will always stick with me.”

Whiteside said professionals have also helped him deal with the suicide of one of his coworkers.

“It shook the department to its core,” he said.

In 2009, a Butler County EMS worker took his own life, according to Whiteside.

“This particular individual was one of those types that could get anybody to smile, to laugh, to open up,” he said.

However, behind his humor, Whiteside said the individual, who KSN is not naming per the family’s request, was struggling.

“A big part of it, I’m positive was the job. The other part was personal life as well and that is just like a double whammy,” Whiteside said.

Whiteside, who grew up with the individual, said the employee also kept a log of the people who died while in his care. Whiteside said it took him several years to come to terms with his coworker and friend’s death.

“You sit there and try to think what did I miss and that’s hard to get past sometimes especially when it’s something so personal,” he said.

Since the employee’s passing, Butler County EMS has put a focus on suicide prevention, most recently taking part in a mental health survey. Of the about 50 employees who took the survey, two of them admitted they had attempted suicide while 10 employees said they have contemplated suicide.

KSN asked Whiteside what his reaction was to the survey’s results.

“First, it’s alarming. The second one is we should know this and the then the third thought is there’s usually one or two extra per vote that’s not accounted for a lot of the times because they don’t want to speak up,” he said.

Whiteside said the survey is proof first responders must get the mental health help they need in order to combat the issue.

“The challenge is, just first off, to get an organization to accept that there is a problem, that it needs to come into focus and we need to do something about it because we lose far too many people every day, every year to mental health,” Whiteside said.

Whiteside said the department is working to put together a peer group for first responders needing to seek help. He said the goal is for them to have a resource of people to to talk to who understand what they see day in and day out as an EMS professional.