Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: First responders are dying by suicide at alarming rates – Washington needs to act

Capt. Jonathan Lehto was a distinguished 20-year veteran of the Nashua Police Department. His death sent shockwaves, not only through his department and the Nashua community, but law enforcement agencies throughout the region. In the midst of the shock and grief, Capt. Lehto’s family and Nashua Police Chief Michael Carignan made a difficult and courageous decision: They decided to share publicly that Capt. Lehto took his own life.

Suicide among law enforcement officers, and all first responders, is a growing national crisis. According to the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Blue H.E.L.P., officer deaths due to suicide are steadily increasing every year. In 2019, Blue H.E.L.P. recorded 228 police officer deaths by suicide. We now lose more officers to suicide than we do in the line of duty. What’s worse, this statistic likely doesn’t capture the many deaths that aren’t identified as officer suicides due to the heavy social stigma about discussing mental health.

These statistics are incredibly tragic, but they shouldn’t be surprising. We ask first responders to bear the burden of frequent exposure to trauma and stress. In New Hampshire, where we have one of the worst overdose rates from substance misuse in the country, first responders are stretched to the limits as they do their very best to bring people back from the brink of death. It’s not uncommon for police, EMT and firefighters to respond to multiple overdoses in a single day.

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First responders are frequently diagnosed with PTSD, particularly police officers. Burnout is also becoming a chronic problem in these professions and contributing to workforce shortages in many areas of New Hampshire. Providing support to first responders is not just the right thing to do for these public servants, it’s the right thing to do for public safety.

As a nation, we don’t do enough to help our first responders process their experiences on the job. While we do our best to make sure that they have the protective equipment they need, programs to protect and sustain mental health are often limited or nonexistent. Sadly, first responders too often have to fight an internal battle alone without any support or counseling while continuing to perform their duties. There is a broad reluctance in our society to discuss mental health, and these work environments are no exception. This acts as a formidable barrier to accessing treatment and helps keep this crisis in the shadows.

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Fortunately, many law enforcement leaders are speaking out and working to change the culture that makes it difficult to discuss mental health. I was honored to have Chief Carignan as my guest at the president’s recent State of the Union address to help raise awareness of this issue. As Chief Carignan puts it, “law enforcement and first responders, in general, have a very difficult job and there’s no shame in acknowledging that what they do and what they see on a daily basis is awful and tragic, and takes its toll … For them to be able to talk about it without repercussions is critical.”

Over the last year, I’ve been working in the Senate to mobilize a response to the tragic trend of first responder suicide. In December, as part of government funding legislation, two provisions I authored became law. The first requires the Department of Justice to begin collecting reliable national data on law enforcement suicides so that we can better understand the scope of this crisis. The second provides an increase in funding to a grant program that helps improve mental health services for state and local law enforcement agencies.

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Despite this progress, this issue doesn’t have nearly the attention it deserves in the halls of Congress and the administration. That needs to change. I see this as an issue where Republicans and Democrats can work together to craft a comprehensive strategy to help law enforcement officers and all first responders address mental health. Through my leadership position on the subcommittee that funds the Department of Justice and law enforcement agencies, I will be urging bipartisan support for more resources to law enforcement agencies so that they can better provide the services and programming that are desperately needed.

It’s unreasonable to ask first responders to bear the heavy burdens of duty-induced trauma without the means to help them cope. It’s time for an honest conversation about what they experience and how to get them help.

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