SUICIDE: The Mental Cost of Being a Firefighter

by Peggy Sweeney

“Training them to deal with trauma, stress, and grief is no less important than training them to be safe on the fire ground.”

Suicide is a major, preventable public health problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2010 it was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for 38,364 deaths.  One of the major risk factors for suicide is depression, or a substance-abuse disorder — often in combination with other mental disorders. More than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have these risk factors. (Moscicki, 2001)

Photo courtesy of Robert R. Devonshire

How Does Depression Feel?
To help you understand the severity of emotional trauma, I would like to paint a mental picture of what my severe depression felt like in 1985. I have labeled it the “well of depression.” It is a very deep, very dark place. Cold and lonely. The walls of this well are slimy and moss-covered. It smells rancid and the floor is broken into huge, jagged junks of concrete. You are not able to maintain a stable footing. As you look up from the depths of the well, you can see only a faint glimmer of light. No matter how hard you try, you cannot pull yourself up and out. The safety rope that dangles in the center of the well is just out of your reach. Your screams for help appear to fall on deaf ears. Your once secure and normal life continues to slowly plummet into the depths of deep despair. You feel as though you have lost control of everything you value in life. You doubt your self-worth. Everything appears hopeless.

What Is the Mental Cost for a Firefighter?
Fire fighting contributes many elements of stress and trauma that greatly intensify depression. As a firefighter, you are placed in life-threatening situations and witness human injury and death regularly. Yet, no one else in your department appears to be troubled by these horrific calls or talks about having the recurring nightmares you battle often. You assume it is only you who is internally reacting to these disturbing calls. You quickly learn to hide your feelings so that you are not bullied for your weakness.

“I was a bad ass firefighter, a seasoned veteran, even looked up to. How could I be seen as weak? Simply put, I couldn’t. So I pushed on, I drank more, worked more and everything around me began to crack and fall apart.”—Casey (2012)

Becoming injured or disabled as a result of your hazardous job may cause depression, anxiety, and stress. Because you no longer function as a firefighter, you believe that you are of no value to your family and community. You have no purpose in life.

You may be dealing with seemingly insurmountable personal problems; such as a divorce, the chronic illness of a family member, financial worries, the death of your child, or substance abuse. As each new traumatic incident or personal struggle occurs, you slip deeper and deeper into depression. It is no wonder that the fire service has one of the highest suicide rates in America. Sadly, the numbers are escalating at an alarming rate.

“One of the biggest challenges in treating a first responder is getting them to ask for help. The stigma that comes along with seeking help is the fear of being “judged” by your peers and losing your job’—Meuer (2013)

Where Can Firefighters Go For Help If It Is Not Offered Through Their Fire Department or Agency?
Although some national fire organizations downplay the role of critical incident stress management/debriefing, I strongly believe that it is a vital component of mitigating post-traumatic stress. Other resources include:

  • Department chaplaincy programs
  • Counselors experienced in treating post-traumatic stress, especially those  who have an understanding of the fire service culture
  • Educational programs related to traumatic stress and suicide prevention/intervention
  • Bereavement programs for fire departments and families touched by suicide.

“Go to the Veterans of Foreign Wars lodge or chapter or buddy up to a Vietnam veteran in the community where the firefighter is living. Vietnam vets get it in spades and have their own cultural story to tell about what they have seen and lived through with their PTSD. There is a symbiotic relationship between war trauma a soldier is exposed to and a firefighter’s exposure to the front line woundings in their community.”— Shannon Pennington

The following websites should be made available to every firefighter, police officer, EMS, 911 dispatcher, healthcare professional, and military personnel both active or veteran:

I strongly believe that fire departments must recognize the importance of programs and resources that focus on depression, post-traumatic stress, suicide prevention/intervention, and coping with loss and grief.

No longer can job-related stress in the fire service be ignored.

It is the duty and responsibility of every fire service officer to provide for and enhance, the emotional wellness of his or her department as well as themselves. Without the support and dedication of everyone, traumatic stress and grief will continue to take a toll on firefighters and their families.
Copyright Peggy Sweeney. All rights reserved.

References
Casey, T. O. (2012). The slow death of a firefighter. Retrieved from http://sweeneyalliance.org/grievingbehindthebadge/the-slow-death-of-a-firefighter/
Meuer, J. (2013) Damaged: A first responder’s experiences handling post-traumatic stress disorder. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Damaged-ResponderS-Experiences-Handling-Post-Traumatic-ebook/dp/B0792QWS4R
Moscicki EK. Epidemiology of completed and attempted suicide: toward a framework for prevention. Clinical Neuroscience Research, 2001; 1: 310-23.

READ TIM CASEY’S FULL ARTICLE HERE

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