Study: First responders need help dealing with depression, suicidal thoughts

AURORA, Colo. -- First responders in Colorado say they need better access to mental health resources.

The findings are part of a report from the National Mental Health Innovation Center at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, in partnership with Responder Strong.

“We’re not called because people want to tell us they’re having a great day. We’re called to witness the biggest tragedies of other people’s lives,” Responder Strong director Rhonda Kelly said.

Kelly spent 17 years as a firefighter paramedic with the Aurora Fire Department before transitioning into a full-time role with Responder Strong.

“Our objective is to create better mental health supports for responders and their families,” she said.

One of the ways the group is trying to do that is through research project directed at more than 700 police and fire departments across Colorado.

“We asked them, what’s the state of mental health in your department? What are your needs and what are your priorities? And what do you see as the barriers?” Kelly said.

Of those departments that responded, the overwhelming response was that there is a greater need for mental health services among emergency responders.

“Only 11 percent of leaders, for example, believe that their personnel are comfortable talking about or discussing their own mental health,” Kelly said.

That is a statistic she said she knows a lot about.

“It’s all of the trauma that responders get exposed to,” she said. “How many dead children can you see? How many burned bodies can you see?”

Kelly lost a former partner to suicide and she also struggled with suicidal thoughts and depression in her career.

“I was hesitant to speak out,” she said. “I think shame is a big thing for responders. None of us want to look weak.”

If you are struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, visit Responder Strong or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

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