Written by: Jeff Dill 5/9/15
Mayday! Mayday! These are words that bring an instant emotion of fear to responders because it indicates one of our own is in serious trouble. Yet, for every mayday we hear on the fire scene, how many silent maydays are we missing on a daily basis from the lives our brothers and sisters due to behavioral health issues?
From the first day Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) was organized, to our first four workshops for the Philadelphia Fire Department in December of 2011, it has been an incredible journey to educate brothers and sisters on behavioral health and firefighter suicide awareness. I have made numerous friends, heard hundreds of sad stories and hugged many family members who needed a shoulder to cry on. Either way, I would not change a single minute because I have learned so much from those who have suffered the loss of a loved one, who were firefighters or emergency medical service members.
It is from their strength and experience that FBHA continues to travel across the United States, Canada to help prevent suicide, even if it is just one single firefighter/EMT from taking their life. To further our market outreach in May, we are hosting training in Phoenix, AZ and Savannah, GA. Eleven individuals from across the US will be Ambassadors and instructors for FBHA.
I would like to cover the Top 5 Warning Signs that found common ground from the hundreds of firefighters we have met these 4 years. In addition, this article will look at some steps to assist each other plus some resources available for fire departments to contact.
FBHA calls these the “Top 5” but don’t forget there are several other warning signs displayed that sometimes are missed, or perhaps as firefighters and officers just don’t know how to approach the subject matter. With all the training we receive within our career from the academies to officer classes I believe it is safe to assume we can count on one hand the amount of training classes we’ve had on behavioral health. The good news is that the fire service is turning the corner, and now realizes the value of behavioral health training for its members.
These are in no particular order but seem to appear in most conversations I have had with firefighters/EMS when discussing issues of depression or suicide.
- Isolation– The fire service is a dynamic group. The interactions of a company within a fire department while training, eating, responding to calls, or whatever career, paid on call or volunteers due together is a bond that only a handful of careers can replicate. So in saying this shouldn’t it be easy to recognize if a member starts to slip away from the “group”. Tradition was to give them some space because they are going through some financial problems, relationship issues or basically “it is a personal issue and if they want help they will ask”. These are the times to rally around our own even when they don’t ask. If they refuse any help then just reassure them to reach out when they are ready because the company is here for them.
- Sleep Deprivation – We have all been there, you know, the call in the middle of the night and when you get back to quarters or home if you’re a POC/Volunteer and try to get back to sleep. It becomes time consuming and difficult because the heart and mind are racing. But what if you are getting those physical and psychological events occurring even when you are at home or don’t go on calls? The cause unknown, but the stress and anxiety as the night approaches sets in realizing you will not sleep again tonight can be very damaging to the body and mind. What about the FF/EMT who is sleeping way too much? In bed most of the day, struggling to even to get up and shower, eat or being with your family? Depression has a cruel way of destroying people’s lives. If sleep is affecting you in either of these ways then it is time to seek help.
- Impulsive – Starting to show signs of impulsiveness or recklessness? This is a negative sign in a change of behavior. Yet, they can be so subtle that people around this person might not realize it as a cry for help. Buying guns when they were always against firearms, riding motorcycles or driving cars recklessly or acting in a manner that could cause serious injury to one self are signs that need to be addressed as soon as possible.
- Anger – In every workshop presented, when I mention anger there is always laughs because those in attendance know of someone on their department that anger applies to. Yet, the issue can be a very dangerous one, especially if an angry member displaces their anger and projects it to others, like family members at home.
- Loss of Confidence – This one started to become a common theme from firefighters I spoke with. It actually never occurred to me until I heard it over and over again. Members who were struggling with issues in their life somehow transferred it to the job and then began to realize they weren’t performing at a level they were use to. They became unsure of the simplest tasks, which increased their frustration, anxiety and increased their lack of confidence as competent firefighter.
In our “Saving Those Who Save Others” workshop we cover these more in depth as well as the following FBHA recommendations. Our theory is to Challenge with Compassion when educating firefighters and officers on knowing warning signs, communicating with each other or offering resources to those effected. Here are some FBHA recommendations:
- Be Proactive, Be Direct – Fire departments need to be proactive towards behavioral health training, and if you think FF suicides will happen to your department then give me a call because I can give you the names of hundreds of fire chiefs who have dealt or are dealing with this issue. It happening from the big cities to the small rural towns. Be direct with firefighters who are suffering. Don’t dance around the issues. These are real problems that need real conversations.
- Direct Questions – If a member comes to you with thoughts of suicide then there are two questions you need to ask.
- Do you feel like killing yourself now?
- Do you have a plan?
These are quick questions to give you an assessment on what is going on with your FF. A “yes” to any of these means you need to seek medical attention immediately. Even if they had thoughts of suicide recently it should be grounds for offering immediate help. Do not leave this person alone.
- Compassion – If someone comes to you to talk, then remember to show compassion. Stay in the moment! Listen actively. Treat them like you would want them to treat you.
- Discretionary Time – One of the most crucial pieces of advice to recommend is to not make a “knee-jerk” remark. If you don’t know an answer or if you are caught off-guard by a personal issue that a member has come to you then use discretionary time. A simple “I have never been approached about this type of issue, let me look into educating myself about it and lets meet later to discuss this further in-depth.” This shows compassion, dedication and concern towards the member and the problem they are facing.
- Walk the Walk – Simply, if a brother or sister needs help then be there for them. Attend AA meetings, drive them to counseling or just be an ear for them.
These are some quick looks at the items we discuss in our workshops. The workshops include videos of fire chiefs who talk about suicides in their department and life, role-play, retirement and much more. If you are interested in learning more about “Saving Those Who Save Others” then visit www.ffbha.org or contact us at email@example.com.
Here is a quick list of resources you can call if you are having problems in your life or if you know someone who is in need.
Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance: www.ffbha.org Call 847-209-8208
National Volunteer Fire Council: http://www.nvfc.org/hot-topics/share-the-load-support-program-for-fire-and-ems
American Addiction Centers: http://americanaddictioncenters.org/fire-services/ 24/7 Call 1.888.731.FIRE (3473) Assistance for firefighters/EMT’s
Rosecrance: Florian Program: http://www.rosecrance.org/substance-abuse/florian-firefighter-treatment-center/ 815-391-1000 or 888-928-5278 Firefighter & Paramedic Substance Abuse Treatment Program
National Suicide Hotline: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org Call 800-273-TALK (8255)
Pocket Assessment Guides are available for a nominal donation. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org