I’ve just heard the news that a friend of mine committed suicide. While he wasn’t in the fire service, he was in the public-safety field. Though I haven’t visited with this friend recently, needless to say, it still comes as quite a shock. So now mental health has become quite personal to me.
Unfortunately, mental-health issues and now suicide can strike anyone at any time. So it’s important for each of us to make sure we look out for not only our physical health, but also our mental health.
And not only our own mental health, but that of our coworkers, friends and family, too.
According to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA), in 2015 90 firefighters and 24 EMS personnel committed suicide.
One is too many; 114 are inexcusable.
Each of us has a responsibility to help prevent firefighter suicide from happening. The FBHA has identified the following behavioral health issues affecting each of us as well as our fire department members.
Top 5 Warning Signs – Think “RAILS”
- Recklessness/Impulsiveness: These might be subtle signs such as purchasing guns when a person has always been against them. Riding a motorcycle recklessly or charging into burning buildings against policy or procedure.
- Anger: Suppressed anger or explosive anger from seemingly minor issues can be a dangerous sign. Displacement (directing one’s anger at someone else instead of the intended person) is often observed. Displacement is most often directed at a FF or EMT’s family.
- Isolation: becoming distant from their career company around the station or volunteer firefighters who don’t participate in drills or calls as much. Members might even display isolation around their family. They lose interest in family activities.
- Loss of Confidence in skills and abilities: Several FFs and EMTs have advised FBHA they lost confidence in their ability to get the job done due to concentrating on emotional or personal issues they were battling. A seasoned FF who can’t remember how put an engine in gear to pump is an example.
- Sleep Deprivation: Loss of sleep can indicate stress, anxiety, PTS or several other emotional issues a member might be struggling with and not realize.
When you see someone struggling or just off their game, follow these recommendations as a starting point:
- Be Proactive – Be Direct We do this when responding to emergencies. We need to take the same approach when our brothers or sisters appear to be struggling.
- Direct Questions – Remember these two questions if a member comes to you with suicidal ideations:
a. Do you feel like killing yourself now?
b. Do you have a plan?
A “yes” to either one of these questions means you need to engage your department procedures or protocols if in the firehouse. If outside of the department then they need help immediately. NEVER leave them alone!
- Compassion – The theme in our workshop is: Be Direct and be compassionate. Stay in the moment when talking to them. It is the most difficult type of conversation but always speak from the heart.
- Discretionary Time – If a member comes to you to talk about a difficult issue they are struggling with and you have never dealt with this type of issue, then let them know but also use discretionary time. Do not make statements just to fill a void. For example: I never realized you were struggling with this issue and I don’t have a lot of knowledge on this problem, but let me find out a little more about it and we will talk later. (If this is a crisis moment, do not leave the member alone).
- Walk the Walk – The number of firefighters, officers and EMTs/paramedics who help their brothers or sisters out by taking them to AA classes or counselors cannot be overstated. They sit outside and wait until the appointment is over. Taking care of our own goes well beyond the station or fire ground.
(Used with permission from the FBHA)
Take time to learn these issues and talk with your members about mental health before it is too late.
While mental health and mental-health issues have carried a stigma with them in the past, this isn’t really true today. There’s a lot of good work and research going on into the mental health and welfare of firefighters today.
Researchers such as Dr. Sara Janke, Dr. Richard Gist, and a host of other folks are working daily to help each of us better understand what we need to know regarding firefighters mental health wellness and how we can put various programs in place to protect our members. In fact, you can access some of this information the FSTAR Health website.
Also, groups such as the IAFC, National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), FBHA and IAFF are all actively engaged in work to help fire departments and firefighters alike deal with this growing epidemic.
Currently, the Safety, Health and Survival Section is taking further steps to ensure the mental health of firefighters of all races, nationalities, genders and ages.
In partnership with the IAFC Human Relations Committee and iWomen, SHS has established a “Bullying and Harassment Coalition.” This group of fire service leaders will tackle what some people call a “rite of passage.”
Through a series of webinars, articles, and programs the Coalition will begin the conversations of how bullying and harassment have a negative impact on the mental health of our members and our organization.
So next time you look in the mirror ask yourself if you are all right. If the person staring back at you doesn’t give you the answer they should, then find someone to talk with. As with everything when it comes to your safety, survival, health, and wellness, your mental health starts with you.
Scott Kerwood, PhD, CFO, EFO, CFPS, FM, FIFireE, is the fire chief of Hutto (Tex.) Fire Rescue and chair of the Safety, Health & Survival Section board. He has been a member of the IAFC since 1988.