September 24, 2016 – Viewpoint of a dad, Al Diercks.

2016 has been an unpleasant milestone. It’s been five years since we lost our son Todd to suicide and I’m still mad.

This emotion is not within the context of the “anger” that’s academically included as “one of the 5 normal stages of grief”.  Certainly, all our family members hit various  “denial, “acceptance” and “depression” levels but I can say that I never sensed any anger toward his suicide – only an overriding feeling of compassion and deep remorse.

With the exception of incidents driven by drug use, it has always been hard for me to understand how any individual could lose all hope and see no alternative to suicide.  Obviously, it was this level of naiveté that kept this outcome hidden from our view – even as Todd’s joy in life continued to spiral in a cruel string of events that he called “his black cloud.”

This included relationship issues and an off-duty spinal injury that ended his career as a firefighter and shattered his sense of self-worth.  A subsequent marriage, stillborn child, financial struggles, divorce, self-medication and job loss combined to take him down.

While many seem to point the finger at those who’ve chosen to take their lives  — boldly and blindly accusing them of having made a “cowardly” decision —  I focus more heavily on the fact that suicide is preventable!   As part of this conviction, I’ll always carry the natural “woulda, coulda, shoulda” assessments.  At least I’ve shed the self-appointed title of “bad Dad.”

So during the years of keeping myself, at least loosely tied to my own whipping post, I’ve learned a lot about the other players and processes that can help keep the progressive  “mental / behavioral health issues . . .  to mental illness . . . to depression  . . . to suicide” issue under a greater level of control.

Through my own non-professional observation, I’ve noted needs in the following areas:

  • At the earliest stages, universities, fire schools and departments need to let candidates know (and SEE) the type of situations they WILL be exposed to.
  • The issue of “mental fitness for duty” should be considered as important as physical health for firefighters and EMT’s.  Funding should be resourced and allocated for ongoing training and screening in this area.  This should contribute to more open, non-threatening discussion and mutual support throughout departments.
  • Chiefs and Training Officers should be tested toassess their own levels of conviction and stigma that may affect or limit actions in their mental health training programs
    • Comparative financial/legal impact studies should be calculated to project personnel costs / lost time, training, insurance/treatment, possible damage/legal implications.   (with AND without periodic mental health training).  Assuming this would be done at Fire Protection District, IAFF, Municipal, Local and State government levels
  • Contracted (EAP) Employee Assistance Program providers must be selected from firms that have a minimum level of Fire/EMS/Trauma-specific training (hrs. TBD) to be considered in contract evaluations.
  • Pharmacists, primary care physicians and LCSW’s who support first responders need to have more effective lines of communications to prevent interactions and misuse.

These are only recommendations but we put it out there as a wish list.  Whatever your connection to fire/EMS, we hope you can help make some of these wishes happen by guidance, participation or contributions — any amount will be appreciated !


Al Diercks & Family

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