Police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in line of duty incidents, a troubling trend that researchers say didn't improve in 2020 despite national suicide rates decreasing, USA Today reports. A new study from the Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for people with disabilities, said the finding was similar to one the group made in a 2018 study. In 2020, COVID-19 became the leading cause of death for law enforcement officers. Researchers and advocates say the discrepancy in suicide rates among the general population and first responders is rooted in shame and stigma associated with suicide, a lack of resources for first responders dealing with mental health challenges and growing pressure and stress from the pandemic. "First responders were out there on the front line (during the pandemic), doing their jobs,"said foundation president Jay Ruderman. "And historically, the stress of being in these jobs and what they experience has led to a higher rate of suicide ... but suicide is not really talked about."
Despite suicide rates for the general population declining by three percent, or 1,656 people, from 2019 to 2020, according to Centers for Disease Control data, the rates among first responders showed moderate to no decrease from 2017 to 2020, the Ruderman study found. In 2020, 116 police officers died by suicide and 113 died in the line of duty. While the number of suicides dropped from 140 in 2017, study co-author Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim noted that 2020 numbers are likely an undercount due to stigma and shame, lack of reporting and people needing time to come forward. Meanwhile, there were 127 suicides reported among firefighters and EMTs in 2020, slightly higher than the 126 confirmed in 2017. Like many who encounter trauma in their line of work, first responders can struggle with dropping work from their minds when they get home, Bar Nissim said. "These characteristics and traits of the role don't go away when they take off the uniform," Bar Nissim said. "Being heroic, being brave, identifying mental health as a sign of weakness, it's something that stays with them even as they take off the uniforms."