Suicide is killing our firefighters: What's to blame and how to stop it

We need to intensify the conversation about this very serious issue.

In 2015, firefighters and EMTs suffered 87 line-of-duty deaths. According to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, 117 suicides were reported the same year for firefighters and EMTs. Reported suicides do not total all suicides. 

June is designated as post-traumatic stress disorder awareness month, but the conversation on this serious topic needs to stretch far beyond June 30. Conversations about PTSD and suicide awareness are largely avoided in public safety professions. FireRescue1 is helping break the silence

Learning about PTSD and suicide triggers
Jerry Meddock Jr., national outreach manager and instructor for the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, sat down with to speak about PTSD and the unfortunate uptick of suicide in firefighting and EMS professions, as well as his personal battle with PTSD. 

Meet Jerry Meddock Jr. 
Meddock has PTSD and contemplated taking his life. He admitted himself to the E.R. "Above all, realize you aren’t alone", Meddock says. For him, networking and learning to not be afraid to speak about his mental illness with others was a huge breakthrough for dealing with his demons. 

Meddock is now a part of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance – this group provides workshops as an outlet for firefighters to talk about suicide and PTSD. 

PTSD is often coupled with additional outside stressors, says Meddock, including marriage issues, financial issues or dealing with homosexuality in a notoriously “macho” profession. The combination of high stress and pre-existing PTSD often triggers suicidal thoughts in firefighters and paramedics.

Departments, you are partially to blame. 
The current firefighting and EMS culture is an enabler in avoiding PTSD and suicide conversations. 

Part of being a firefighter or EMT is living up to the expectation of being a hero. It’s easy to forget that first responders are humans, too, and that the horrific scenes first responders are subject to witnessing can take a toll on mental health. 

“Stigma is a big thing,” says Meddock. “Peers may look at you differently if you admit to suffering from mental health issues.” 

Some departments threaten to take firefighters and paramedics off the “front lines” – or worse, fire someone if they suspect or catch wind of mental health issues. These cultural fears inhibit firefighters and paramedics from being open about their mental health. 

What needs to happen?
Training within departments isn’t evolving to reflect growing mental health needs. Departments are continuously upgrading and focusing on tactical training without supporting workshops for mental health as well. Training should include dealing with trauma, and where to seek help when you need it. 

A growing number of departments are instilling a ride-along program where counselors and chaplains respond to calls alongside firefighters and EMTs. This program helps counselors and chaplains live the life of a first responder to get a better grip on what issues arise, says Meddock. 

In addition to practical skills training, we need to encourage the conversation about PTSD and suicide prevention to encourage hope and provide opportunities for treatment. 

Look for hope
Most departments offer employee assistance programs, which provide the option for firefighters and paramedics to speak, in confidence, about the mental health issues they face. 

The more we speak about the issue of mental illness in first responders, the more fine-tuned and helpful these employee assistance programs will become. 

If you or a loved one is experiencing PTSD, don’t be afraid to speak out. Check out the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance’s self-assessment guide for suicidal ideations for firefighters and EMTs. Look below this text for the FBHA pamphlet which helps identify five signs of behavioral health issues and five steps to assist your brothers and sisters. Please read it so you can recognize when you or a loved one needs to seek help. 

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