Firefighter mental health and crime: What's the correlation?
A firefighter-turned-psychologist breaks down what strategies fire departments can put into place to prevent firefighter-specific crimes
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The relationship between mental health and crime is a complex and controversial subject. And when you add firefighters into the equation, it makes the topic even more taboo.
Firefighters are often portrayed as strong, hardworking and responsible civil servants of their community — and in most cases, that's accurate. Many in the fire service and general public think that mental health is a private matter or sign of weakness. But when a bad apple is mentioned in the news lineup, it's hard to not look at the facts behind the hero.
Nationally, we've seen countless stories about firefighters intentionally setting fires, stealing money from their departments, struggling with substance abuse and even getting arrested for domestic abuse.
And each time these stories make the headlines it begs the question — what's the correlation between mental health and crime?
Dr. Beth Murphy, who has her doctorate in psychology, doesn't believe criminal acts such as arson and theft are the direct result of mental illness.
Dr. Murphy has been in practice for 10 years. Before she decided to dabble in psychology, she was a firefighter/EMT for 12 years with the Bellevue (Wash.) Fire Department. She was also an acting lieutenant and served as a hazmat tech.
"In the fire service, I became involved in the department's peer support program and wanted to do more and offer more," Dr. Murphy said. "So, I went back to school. I finished my undergraduate degree in psychology and went right into a doctoral program — all while still working."
Arson, she said, is a subtype of fire setting and is a criminal act in which someone intentionally and maliciously sets fires. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, half of all arsons are committed by those younger than 18 and about 90 percent of all arsonists are male and predominantly white.
Fire setting is a symptom of several mental health disorders and the manifestation is usually a component of impulsivity, risk or disregard for others. Mental health disorders with this kind of manifestations are affective disorders such as bipolar, depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders and substance abuse.
Theft can also be a symptom of a mental health disorder.
"Both problems cross a line of criminality, but most people who struggle with mental health issues are not criminals," she said. "Making the correlation between crime and mental illness would be an error."
Instead, the issue is that some firefighters who manage to get hired have a tendency toward criminality and likely came in with some level of mental health issues.
"Based on community findings of mental health, arson and theft, it would be rare for a firefighter who developed a mental illness while in the fire service to commit arson or theft unless they had a prior history of such criminality," she said.
Jeff Dill, a retired fire captain and founder of Firefighter Behavior Health Alliance, became a licensed counselor after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In 2009, he founded Counseling Services for Firefighters that offered health support to firefighters and educated clinicians on the behavioral health of firefighters. In 2010, he started receiving emails from fire departments around the world asking if he could help with firefighter suicides. And in 2011, FBHA was founded to track and validate firefighter and EMT suicides and offer workshops to help departments deal with the aftermath of a firefighter suicide.
He agrees with Dr. Murphy's findings that a firefighter who has committed a crime may have always been that way and just happened to be in the fire service.
"I understand it as the person has always been that way versus that the fire service caused it," he said. "I don't think we have enough data to make the assumption that firefighter criminal acts and mental health are intertwined."
Dill said the crimes firefighters commit may also be affected by the fire service's cultural brainwashing of never wanting to ask for help or "suck it up" mentality.
"It truly is individualized as to why a firefighter decides to commit theft or arson," he said. "It's hard to put that correlation on it, but one is often made because they're suffering and acting out in those aspects."
Although the shortcomings in research between mental health and crime make it difficult to draw valid conclusions, there are strategies fire departments can put into place to prevent firefighter-specific crimes from happening.
How to prevent crime
One strategy that all departments could start implementing to limit firefighter-specific crimes is to make sure there's a thorough pre-hire process that includes a background check and psychological testing.
"My husband, who is a retired deputy fire chief and attorney, was involved in a case where a firefighter set several fires allegedly because he was bored and had not had his first fire," Dr. Murphy said. "In this department, there was no pre-hire process. He was allowed in because a family member thought that the fire service would 'straighten him out.'"
It came out during the trial that the firefighter in question had a history of school, work, attitude, alcohol and theft problems.
"My point is — if they had done a background check, they would have found out about his problems," Dr. Murphy said. "He would have been deemed a high-risk hire and the department could have then decided whether or not they would take the risk of hiring him."
Having a pre-hire process in place ensures that the department doesn't hire individuals with a history of criminality or unmanaged mental illness. Second, it's also important to have a process in place to address mental health so a firefighter can get help early. And third, you must be willing to terminate those who have committed a level of criminality that makes them a risk to themselves and others.
"Firefighters are and should be held to a high standard," Dr. Murphy said. "They see people at their most vulnerable and the public needs to feel safe. The last thing that a department wants is someone who undermines public and departmental trust."
Training and mental health issues
In order to be able to identify mental health issues such as depression, PTSD, anxiety and addiction in firefighters, there must be training at the operational level.
With training, it means that everyone can recognize a problem, listen, assess and refer. And while some departments may not want to include this training, it is beneficial to at least be trained to recognize when someone is in trouble and be able to listen — like an awareness-level certification in specialty areas such as hazmat or technical rescue.
"A good training program would be learning psychological first aid or stress first aid," Dr. Murphy said. "If there is a technician level in the department, it could be a chaplain or mental health professional contracted by the department."
Another way to incorporate training techniques to help deal with mental health issues is by having a behavioral health program in place like Capt. Dill created with the FBHA.
"Over the past four years, I've been surprised most by how across the United States there has been a lack of behavioral health training in the fire and EMS service," Dill said. "We need to start educating in our fire academies and in our fire officer classes."
Since founding FBHA, he's also seen more organizations developing first responder behavioral help and suicide prevention programs. However, in the departments he's visited over the years, only about 1 to 2 percent has had a behavioral health program already instituted.
"We know budgets play a big role and training is the first place that takes a cut," he said. "We're still at the foothills of developing behavioral and mental health programs and what we need to do prepare and train in the fire service. But we need to start being proactive and dedicate money and funding in our budgets to develop peer support teams."
And by developing and funding such programs, mental health symptoms could be addressed early.
"Better yet, departments need to work on prevention," Dr. Murphy said. "A good stress prevention program and annual check-in with someone, similar to the firefighter fitness program, would be a good start."
Having a solid support system, open conversations about the emotional well-being and availability of mental health services may not be the answer to eliminating firefighter-specific crimes. It is, however, a steppingstone to a healthier and well-educated fire service.
This article, originally published March 22, 2016, has been updated