What can CDC data tell us about first responder suicide?

Accurate data, specific to first responders, is critical in understanding and preventing suicide


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a review of suicide rates by occupational group on July 1, 2016 [1]. The report is based on data obtained from the National Violent Death Reporting System, one of the databases the CDC uses to track suicides.

The CDC researchers used the Standard Occupational Classification system to categorize people into occupations. The Standard Occupational Classification system uses primary and secondary classification groups to classify occupations. EMTs and paramedics are members of group 29, Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Occupations. Firefighters and police officers are members of group 33, Protective Service Occupations. 

While initially hopeful that this review would improve the information available about the suicide rate in first responders, it has some limitations that prevent any conclusions from being made about first responder suicide. 

SOC group limitations
Standard Occupational Classification groups are broad designations with multiple sub-classifications in each category. First responders do not have their own category, and are split into two categories with multiple other professions.

For example, group 29 also includes physicians, pharmacy technicians and traditional Chinese herbalists. While group 33 also includes animal control workers, crossing guards and playground monitors. This means that the suicide rate for Standard Occupational Classification groups 29 and 33 include people from a number of other professions and do not accurately represent the suicide rates of first responders.

A person’s Standard Occupational Classification grouping was also based on their listed profession on their death certificate or other official record. Since people can only be assigned to one group it is likely that a large percentage of volunteer first responders were not classified as members of groups 29 and 33, further skewing the numbers.

The 17 states included in the review reported 12,312 total suicides or about one-third of the total number of suicides in 2012 [1]. Of the 12,312 individuals, a total of 450 were classified into group 29 and 295 into group 33. Given how broad these groups we have no way of knowing what percentage of each group were first responders or if the percentage of first responders included had a statistically significant impact on the suicide rate for the overall group.

What we can learn
Unfortunately for first responder suicide prevention, not much can be ascertained from the report. Some groups, such as the legal professions group, are more homogenous, and thus the information provides an accurate idea of the suicide rate within that field. The CDC plans on releasing another review using the 2014 data from 32 states.

The importance of numbers
An accurate idea of the suicide rate among first responders is an important step towards understanding the problem and lowering the rate. The data can also help us track suicide clusters or identify other patterns that might exist. Having an accurate idea of the suicide rate is also vital to knowing if interventions and education aimed at reducing the suicide rate are successful in subsequent years.

While the CDC does collect suicide data via the National Violent Death Reporting System, first responder suicides are not tracked by the government in the same way line of duty deaths are. If you know of a first responder suicide you can make a confidential report to either the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance or The Code Green Campaign.

Reference

1. Suicide Rates by Occupational Group — 17 States, 2012. Weekly / July 1, 2016 / 65(25);641–645.

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