We need to have this conversation. In fact, everyone needs to have this conversation and finally bring to light some very disturbing facts: Firefighter/EMS suicides are outnumbering line of duty deaths. It’s time to talk about first responder mental health.
We are only a couple of weeks into this New Year, and we have lost three of our brothers and sisters in the line of duty. But what’s more sobering is the fact that we have lost an additional four to suicide. Some even posted goodbye messages on Facebook before taking their own lives. No one really knows when the trend started, but it’s been tracked since 2013.
And it’s a tough statistic to accurately nail down. Most agencies are not forthcoming with reporting the information that one of their own has ended their life. Still, it doesn’t change the alarming increase in incidents.
First responder mental health facts
The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) – widely known for providing behavioral mental health awareness with an emphasis on suicide prevention and getting resources to firefighters and their families – is largely the recognized keeper of these grim numbers. In 2016, 89 firefighter deaths in the line of duty were recorded. And 130 committed suicide. In 2015, 135 firefighters committed suicide, and 89 lost their lives in the line of duty. The number was a bit lower in 2014 – 114 suicides and 92 line-of-duty deaths, but you can clearly see the trend. These numbers are confirmed by the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA).
Why are our firefighters killing themselves? The short answer has to do with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but both the FBHA and the USFA say more factors are at play here. Family and money issues combined with the fact that firefighting/EMS is a high-stress profession. In fact, CareerCast.com just completed their annual survey of the most stressful careers in the nation. First, of course, are our enlisted active duty military personnel. Firefighting was number two. Number two! Ahead, even, of commercial airline pilots (the complete survey results can be found here). Career Cast factors in environment, life risk, and on the job hazards, among other things.
Think about what they see on the job every day. I don’t need to give grim details here – they walk into horrific things, and are expected to remain calm and professional and get the job done. We may not break down that day, or even in the days to come, but see enough on shift, and it happens eventually.
I’ve been a paramedic in an inner-city district for 20 years. I still have a call that haunts me – gives me nightmares – and always will. Christmas Eve morning 2002, I was called out in the still-dark hours for a pregnancy. Delivery was in progress by family members. When I got there, there was no electricity in this freezing house, and firefighters were holding flashlights over my head so I could get to work. I got on my knees in time to finish delivering. And it turned out to not only be one baby but two. A teen mom, only 20 weeks along with no prenatal care.
They were born not breathing, no pulse. No bigger than the palms of my hands. We made a quick decision to do some BLS care, while other paramedics explained to the family the tiny chance for survival these twins had. And then their little tiny mouths started breathing, and we did what little we could, racing them to the nearest neonatal capable hospital (which was two minutes away, thankfully). It was so cold, and I remember holding them inside my uniform shirt against my skin to keep them warm, holding blow-by oxygen near their faces. They died in the ER. Their mom named them ‘Angel’ and ‘Miracle.’ When I can’t sleep, it is their little faces I see.
There are hundreds – thousands, maybe – of these stories. And I have news for you … work this job long enough, and you will have some level of PTSD. I’m not ashamed to admit that I see a grief counselor to deal with the stressors. But others won’t ask for help.
Why is that? Because firefighters are supposed to be heroes; they give the help, they don’t ask for it. And that’s where the dirty little stigma comes in. What if firefighters admitted they needed help dealing with the things their eyes cannot unsee? Would their brothers and sisters in uniform look differently at them? Would the administration take them off of their rigs and put them on light duty, until they’re fit to go back out there? Would they be fired, or forced to retire?
How to fix the problem
So what now? How do we begin to fix this? How do we talk about first responder mental health?
It starts with changing the culture, from the administration down. Standards for ongoing programs for firefighters need to be created. Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) debriefing is wonderful right after a very bad call, but we all know it’s never ‘The Big Bad One’ that causes first responders to snap. It’s cumulative. So the programs need to be regular, and PTSD and suicide need to be mentioned more than just a brief gleaning as part of the continuing monthly education we attend.
And we desperately need awareness, instead of turning a blind eye on a peer that just might be in trouble. Blow the lid off of this thing. Start a dialogue, keep it going, and make sure your station members know that they’re not alone – so many of us are going through this – and that they have a comfortable forum to speak. There are resources, and it’s time we started using them. I can’t stress this enough: If you see something, say something. I’ve posted it before, but I’ll share it again: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.