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New Bill Seeks To Compile Data On Suicide Attempts By First Responders

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We turn now to another aspect of gun violence that we often don't talk about. And here we're going to focus on first responders. In the U.S., police officers and firefighters are now more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. That's according to data from the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on mental health research. And yet there's no comprehensive government-wide effort to collect information about suicide among first responders.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has introduced a bill that would give this task to the FBI. It's an effort to begin to understand the scope of the problem among first responders. One of the sponsors of the bill is Catherine Cortez Masto. She is a Democrat from Nevada. Earlier this week, I visited her offices on Capitol Hill to ask her to tell us more about her thinking on the subject. And I started our conversation by asking her why the bill makes reporting on suicide voluntary among departments and not mandatory.

CATHERINE CORTEZ MASTO: Many of our law enforcement, if they do have emotional trauma because of the serious nature of what they're dealing with in their professional careers, they don't want to be stigmatized with a mental health issue. Which to me, we've got to just change that - that getting help for a mental health issue is a bad thing. So the purpose is here to make it voluntary, but it also doesn't collect the PII - the personal identifying information of that law enforcement officer.

MARTIN: But that's why I'm asking you, why isn't the department required to deliver this information? Because you're taking out personal identifying information. I mean, it would seem that, by definition, if you're only offering this opportunity to people who are willing to give you that information - sure, large departments like New York will participate, but a smaller department where there may be an equally pressing issue might not. I mean, why wouldn't you compel agencies to give this information?

CORTEZ MASTO: Because I don't think I'm going to need to have to compel them. After talking with the police chiefs and sheriff of our urban and rural areas, this is an issue they want to deal with. I cannot tell you how many people, after hearing about this bill, have reached out from the law enforcement community. I think they want to address this, so I don't think it's going to be an issue that it's voluntary because I think agencies across the country will comply. So that wasn't as much my concern as it was making sure that those that participate - their personal identity is protected. But we're understanding the scope of the problem so we can address it.

MARTIN: You know, obviously, this is a very sort of polarized political moment. And there are people who make the argument that part of the reason that law enforcement is under stress is that they're not getting the respect that they are owed by the society at large. I mean, how do you keep this issue from being another issue that gets politicized, either - like, it's like you're either on one team or the other team. It's either you're on Black Lives Matter team or you're on team, you know, blue lives matter. How would you sort of focus on what you consider to be the substance of this, as opposed to letting it get caught up in another kind of political debate?

CORTEZ MASTO: Because I think you can focus on both. I think you can focus on the accountability, and that's necessary to hold police officers accountable when they do cross that line. Absolutely. But I also know that we can also bring resources to help law enforcement officers when they are dealing with the stressors of the job, the mental health that are - emotional traumas that are PTSD. I think there - you can do both. I also think we have to kind of recognize that there is also a distinction between our law enforcement in urban and rural areas because urban areas quite often have more resources to bring to the table to support law enforcement, but our rural areas do not. And so they're that much more stressed and taxed.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, do you have a sense of what would make a difference? I understand that your focus here is you want to get to the bottom of this. You want to understand what's happening to whom this is happening and why this is happening. What are the triggers? Do you have a sense, though, what a better world would look like when it comes to this? Like, how will you know when you've succeeded? Do you have some just sense now - and I understand that you don't want to dictate solutions - but do you have a sense of - what you think, based on your experience with this issue, what would make a difference?

CORTEZ MASTO: I can tell you - we have it in Nevada right now - we have some peer-to-peer counseling programs that help and really, I think, is beneficial. It's a - they're model programs because when you have peer-to-peer counseling, that means that your peers on law enforcement are reaching out to you to work with you to help you through this issue. I think there is somebody that is dealing with emotional trauma that's more willing to talk to a peer than they are to per say a professional and be kind of stigmatized. I think those are best practices that we can learn from. But before we go down the path of modeling them across the country, we need to understand the scope of the problem and the depth of the problem before we can put resources into those types of programs.

MARTIN: That's Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, Democrat from Nevada. She was kind enough to host us in her office on Capitol Hill. Senator, thank you so much for having us.

CORTEZ MASTO: Thank you.

MARTIN: And we do want to say that if you are in crisis or if you know someone who is, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.