2019 Virginia Public Safety Health Pilot Survey

First Responder Survey Executive Summary


The loss of first responders by suicide is devastating to their families, friends, and agencies. The growing number of deaths across the nation constitutes a clear crisis in public safety: nationwide, we are on track to lose more officers to suicide than in recent years. More officers die by their own hand than in line of duty deaths, a disparity that appears to be getting worse. The Fairfax County Police Department is no exception and has had their share of heartbreak and loss to suicide, especially in recent years. In response to this crisis, the department developed a survey to capture a snapshot of the agency. The goal was to:

  • Identify risk and protective factors related to the mental health of officers.
  • Guide changes in policy and legislation.
  • Strengthen the focus on wellness and prevention to build resilience and reduce the impact of repeated exposure to trauma.
  • Target cultural changes to reduce stigma and encourage first responders to seek treatment.
  • Address clinical issues with evidence-based treatment.

    To analyze the results, the department was very fortunate to partner with the United States Marshals Service Behavioral Analysis Unit and the Fairfax County Coalition of Police Local 5000, who administered the survey and collected the data.

    This year, nearly 5,000 first responders in Virginia completed the Fairfax County Police Department’s survey. They had the courage to speak up about their emotional health and the costs of the work they choose to do every day. Their responses have been the same across 26 agencies and all three branches of public safety work: they are in pain. Despite the pain, many of them are reluctant to seek relief because they are all too aware of the expectations that they should always remain strong and stoic. Those expectations may come from society, from within the agency, and from the first responder himself: whatever their sources, these beliefs stand between many first responders and the relief they deserve.

    The survey was initially developed by the Fairfax County Police Department as a short, internal questionnaire to collect anonymous responses about officers’ well-being, how the work might have affected them, and what kinds of help they wanted in order to be healthier. The response rate was staggering: about 60% of our officers had the couragetospeakupaboutsuch“forbidden”topicsastrauma,depression,alcoholuse,andsuicidalthinking. Even more surprising, other departments throughout the state began asking for the survey to give it to their personnel, and they were kind enough to share the results.

    Nearly eight percent (7.8%) of first responders in this survey admitted to recent thoughts of suicide. By comparison, the estimated rate of suicidal thoughts in the general U.S. population is three percent. This is in a population that is presumably healthier than the general population at the beginning of their careers, because they are psychologically screened and selected.

    Suicidal thoughts are linked to other serious problems as well. Those who endorsed suicidal thoughts were more likely to be depressed and angry or confrontational. They were also more likely to suffer from reactions to traumatic experiences: the more reactions they reported, the more likely they were to report suicidal thoughts. Those who reported three out of five traumatic reactions were twice as likely as the average first responder to have suicidal thoughts. Those who endorsed all five types of traumatic reactions were four times as likely. The association between suicidal thoughts and conditions like depression and trauma are very clear; it seems equally clear that treating those conditions successfully would be a vital step toward reducing the suicide rates among first responders.

Almost one out of four (23.7%) respondents said they suffered depression as a consequence of their work. Depression was most likely to strike among experienced personnel, those with more than five years on the job. Those who suffered from depression were far more likely to think about quitting or retiring, suggesting that depression may cause experienced first responders to leave their careers. Those suffering from depression were also far more likely to talk about wanting help, yet felt pessimistic or hopeless that things would improve.

Trauma reactions are also far too common among first responders. Nearly half of our sample endorsed feeling hypervigilant or overly watchful, a common trauma reaction that leaves the person feeling unable to stop scanning for threats even in their home life. Other common reactions include flashbacks, nightmares, and avoidance of people or places that remind them of a traumatic experience.

First responders also spoke up about what prevents them from seeking the help they need. Three out of ten respondents wanted to “tough it out” or handle it on their own; another three out of ten feared stigma or that their employer would find out. This was especially true for those who have suffered from depression or suicidal thoughts.

As an example of a first responder who needs assistance, consider the hypothetical case of “Officer Jones”. (This case is a composite based on statistical analyses of our survey results.) In the twelve years of his career, Officer Jones has been exposed to hundreds of situations that have the potential to be traumatic. Some of those situations break into his thoughts during the day and play out in nightmares as he tries to sleep. He finds himself avoiding certain places and situations because they remind him of what he has been through. He has gradually pulled away from people in his personal life, become more angry and confrontational, and his drinking has increased. He knows that he could probably benefit from talking to someone, but he keeps trying to handle it on his own rather than risk consequences to his career or negative judgments from his work friends. Officer Jones might not admit to having any thoughts of suicide, although he knows other first responders who have them.

While the high response rates across Virginia were initially surprising to us, perhaps the first responders who spoke up are people who have been suffering like Officer Jones, or know someone who has been. With the results clearly demonstrating that these individuals suffer in silence due to fear and stigma.

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