The passing of Passaic County Sheriff Richard Berdnik — a longtime officer who fatally shot himself in Clifton, New Jersey, on January 23 — has brought to the forefront once again the critical issue of mental health among law enforcement officers and other first responders.
A study by the Ruderman Family Foundation in 2018 shed a light on the issue, with statistics showing that police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
Another study, published in 2020, found that law enforcement workers were at a higher risk of suicide than those in other professions, noting that officers were “69% more likely to die of suicide in the United States compared to approximately 1.4 million total employed decedents” in the National Occupational Mortality Surveillance System’s database.
“If you go back and do some research, you’ll see that you had a high number of officers die by suicide, and you’ll see that there were more that took their lives than that died in the line of duty in the typical way,” said Brian Higgins, professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former chief of Bergen County Police. “Really, if it’s been the job and what the officers do that has created this mental health crisis which brings them to suicide, then that is a job-related loss as well.”
Yet, despite the availability of resources, the stigma surrounding seeking help persists.
In response to Berdnik’s death, Governor Phil Murphy and other officials are working to make mental health resources available to law enforcement officers and first responders in New Jersey.
Among these resources is the Cop2Cop program, established in 1998 after a series of police suicides. The program, which has helped prevent over 300 suicides in its first two decades, offers a statewide hotline (866-267-2267) staffed by licensed clinicians and retired police officers who provide confidential support and additional resources for law enforcement officers and their families 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Additionally, members of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) can access the PBA’s Peer Response Team, composed of both law enforcement officers and mental health clinicians.
“Sometimes it could be just that you need a like-minded person that has been down the same road just to talk to,” remarked Luke Sciallo, coordinator of the PBA Peer Response Team. “We want to break that stigma. It is OK to ask for help.”
In addition, various organizations offer assistance through hotlines and other means. Copline (1-800-267-5463), the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (9-8-8) and the Veterans Crisis Line (dial 9-8-8 and then press one) are available around the clock.
Sciallo said that all these resources can provide officers with strategies and support to cope with trauma.
“You see bad things, and you see good things too, but you’re expected to put a Band-Aid on the bad things … and you have to learn how to process that on your own,” Sciallo noted. “It’s just a matter of how you deal with those feelings before you get to a point where it can become toxic or destructive.”
Furthermore, local initiatives like St. Clare’s Hospital in Denville appointing EMS mental health resilience officers shows a growing awareness of the need for mental health support designed for first responders.
Corinne Flammer, St. Clare’s first EMS mental health resilience officer, said it was important to take proactive measures to support mental well-being.
Recognizing the persistent stigma, Higgins recommends implementing routine wellness checks on officers.
“After a tough call, Flammer opens a line of communication with her first responders, allowing them to know that support is available if they need it,” Higgins told CBS 2.
In addition to seeking professional help, Flammer offered practical tips for maintaining mental health, such as getting enough sleep, taking a walk outside, getting good nutrition and building a support network.