Mental health and suicide prevention have long been taboo subjects in the fire service. Firefighters are viewed as models of strength and heroism, and the culture has typically fostered a “buck up” approach rather than “let’s talk about it.”
Experts say they’re starting to see a shift in that culture, particularly as more peer support groups are formed within departments, but there’s still a long way to go.
“We’re talking about over 200 years of ‘suck it up, buttercup’—that’s not going to change overnight,” Michael Hoehn, a firefighter/EMT for Manchester Fire-Rescue-EMS and head of his department’s peer support group, told NFPA Journal. “The system isn’t perfect, but the overall culture is changing. We’re finally talking about it.”
Suicide awareness and prevention was the topic of conversation at a panel discussion April 6 at the New England Division International Association of Fire Chiefs 2016 Annual Meeting, held at NFPA headquarters in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Hoehn was joined Dr. Susan Balaban and Donny Richard from the Brattleboro Retreat, the first mental health treatment center in the country to develop a program specifically for firefighters, police, military personnel, and emergency medical technicians. Other panelists included Jim McKay, a firefighter/EMT for Manchester Fire-Rescue-EMS and a co-worker of Heohn's; and Keith Crochiere, CEO of the EAP Network, which provides counseling to more than 100 organizations across New England.
Firefighter suicide statistics are difficult to come by, at best. The Arizona-based Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) is the only organization in the United States that tracks firefighter and EMT suicides, and even then, the reporting rate is estimated at about 50 percent nationwide, according to founder Jeff Dill.
In 2011, Dill formed FBHA and began compiling statistics. He calls chiefs across the country to document incidents of suicide, and chiefs have started to notify him as well. Families of firefighters who have committed suicide contact him, too. He recorded 69 firefighter suicides in 2013, 110 in 2014, 116 in 2015, and 31 through mid-April of 2016, though he acknowledges that the information is only partial.
“I didn’t think we had a problem with suicides,” he said. “But when I started looking around and doing research, I realized we did.”
Dill travels the country hosting educational workshops on firefighter suicide prevention, and he organizes weekend retreats for families of survivors. He put together the upcoming “We Remember” night, when fire departments across the country are asked to place a rig in their department driveway and turn on the lights for one minute in support of families who have lost firefighters to suicide, or to stand in their own driveway and light a candle. The memorial takes place May 20 at 9 p.m. in each department’s respective time zone.
According to Dill, mental health education and suicide prevention training should start in the fire academy. He estimates that only about 10 percent of fire academies address those issues at any length.
To read the full story on the panel discussion and growing awareness of firefighter mental health issues, check out the upcoming May/June issue of NFPA Journal.
(Photo: AP/WIDE WORLD. Firefighters hang black bunting at a Connecticut firehouse in memory of a chief who committed suicide. Health experts say the suicides of colleagues can be some of the most difficult events for emergency responders to cope with.)
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