'Urgent' call for research on impact of suicides on first responders

University of Auckland PhD student Stowe Alrutz surveyed close to 700 partners of emergency...
There has been little research into the impact this has on their personal and professional lives and on their own suicide risk. Photo: Gregor Richardson
A University of Otago researcher says further investigation into the impacts of suicide events on first responders is urgently needed.

PhD student and psychologist in training Renan Lyra, of the University of Otago, Wellington, said many police officers, firefighters and paramedics will attend at least one suicide event in their careers.

There has been little research into the impact this has on their personal and professional lives and on their own suicide risk, he said.

Mr Lyra has reviewed 25 research papers on the impact attending a suicide event has on those on the front line in countries including the US, the UK, Australia and in Europe. 

His review, which has just been published in the international journal PLOS ONE, is understood to be the first to specifically look at the impact of work-related exposure to suicide among first responders and mental health professionals.

Almost all the research papers published over the last 10 years were focused on the impact the suicide of a patient had on the psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and nurses who worked with them, rather than on first responders. 

PhD student Renan Lyra. Photo: Supplied
PhD student Renan Lyra. Photo: Supplied

Attending a suspected suicide was one of the most traumatic situations a first responder was likely to encounter in the course of their work, Mr Lyra said.

“For first responders, the emotional impact includes the high emotional labour they need to expend to manage their feelings, something which has been found to be associated with increased thoughts of suicide among firefighters.”

Exposure to suicide is a "major risk factor" for suicide, which means mental health professionals and first responders are at higher risk of suicide than the general population, he said.

“One of the explanations for the higher rates of suicides among these professions is their higher levels of occupational-related psychological distress, and for first responders, work-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One of the contributors to this may be their higher exposure to suicide.

"For every suicide, it has been estimated that between six and 20 people, usually family members and friends of those who died, are adversely affected psychologically and emotionally. This group is likely to include those who encounter suicide while on duty.”

Research which detailed the impact of attending a suicide event on mental health professionals found they experienced sadness, shock, feelings of blame, hopelessness, guilt, self-doubt, grief and anger. 

Only two of the 25 research papers Mr Lyra examined measured mental health outcomes in mental health professionals after a patient’s suicide, with burnout and PTSD reported as significant adverse outcomes.

Mr Lyra is planning further research on the impact of suicide on first responders. 

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I was a paramedic tutor for some time. Must have attended at least 50 deceased suicides. I'm ok. I seriously wonder with increase in staffing levels (1) are the wrong type of people in the job? (2) are the expectations of staff too much? (yes they are).
An emergency job was dealt with just by me a few years ago. Now its 2 ambulances plus squad car plus fireys, so at least 5 ambos nowadays.
An interesting phenomenon occurs here. To impress each other (or to not unimpress each other) it creates a situation where the ambos have to grieve with the family to look professional to each other. Then they talk about it later. So no distancing their emotions and moving on.
Before anyone says I'm heartless or don't know what I'm talking about - I've been to major incidents, train crashes, bombings, riots with guns, babies thrown out of high rise apartments.
I'm OK.



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