This Holiday Season, Reach Out to Those Who Are Hurting
By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
The holiday season can be a joyous time spent celebrating with family and loved ones and reflecting on another year gone by. But, for many people, the holidays can be extremely difficult. For those struggling with mental health issues or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the holidays can evoke an array of unpleasant emotions.
PTSD is a lot more common among first responders than many people realize. In addition, mental health issues and suicide remains a topic that not enough public safety professionals are willing to talk about. Until recently, this unwillingness to openly discuss the impact of PTSD has kept mental health issues a professional secret in public safety.
Suicide Rates in the Fire Service
The National Fallen Firefighter Foundation (NFFF) found that a fire department is three times more likely to lose a firefighter due to suicide than to a line-of-duty-death in any given year.
“This is a shocking statement and one that should make anyone in the fire service stop and think for a moment, but especially department chiefs and other leadership,” said Merritt Kearns, a faculty member in the Emergency and Disaster Management and Fire Science Management programs at American Military University.
Merritt has been in the fire service for 10 years and is currently a captain with the Statesboro, Georgia Fire Department. While suicide is not a topic many agencies openly discuss, awareness is growing as more research documents the prevalence of suicide among firefighters.
For example, NFFF recently released a new report, “Confronting Suicide in the Fire Service” (PDF, 461 Kb.). This report was compiled based on recommendations following the 2011 and 2013 national summits on suicide in the fire service. The report includes statistics, risk factors, and assessment and prevention methods.
The topic of mental health has also started gaining attention thanks to the public discussion of personal struggles by individuals like Captain Willie Wines Jr., a career firefighter who openly writes about his struggle with depression, alcohol, and mental health on his blog, Iron Firemen.
Give Back by Reaching Out
For those who work in the fire service, emergency medical services, or law enforcement, helping can sometimes just be a matter of taking the time to reach out to someone to let them know you care. A phone call, outing, or even a note can mean a lot to a person having a hard time during the holidays. And, if you suspect a person needs more than the help of a friend or coworker, do something about it. Take action–suicides are preventable deaths.
Warning Signs of Suicide
Recognizing warning signs is vital to preventing suicides. Indicators include when a person:
- Talks about suicide or death and even glorifies death
- Gives direct verbal cues such as “I wish I were dead” or “I am going to end it all”
- Gives less direct verbal cues, such as “What’s the point of living?,” “Soon you won’t have to worry about me,” and “Who cares if I’m dead, anyway?”
- Starts self-isolating from friends and family
- Expresses the belief that life is meaningless or hopeless
- Starts giving away cherished possessions
- Exhibits a sudden and unexplained improvement in mood after being depressed or withdrawn (This is a very dangerous sign because it means an individual has come to terms with his/her own death and is relieved the end is near.)
- Neglects his or her appearance and hygiene
- Openly discusses that he/she feels out of control
- Displays behavior changes such as hostility, blaming, argumentative, insubordinate, or appearing passive, defeated, and hopeless
- Develops a morbid interest in suicide or homicide
- Indicates that he/she is overwhelmed and cannot find solutions to his/her problems
- Takes unnecessary risks on the job and/or in his/her personal life
- Exhibits deteriorating job performance
- Displays recent issues with alcohol and/or drug use
There are many resources available specifically for the fire and EMS community. Here are a few of them:
- Fire/EMS Helpline: 1-888-731-FIRE (3473)
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Share the Load program, National Volunteer Fire Council
- Behavioral health resources, NFFF
- Suicide in the Fire Service, Learning Resource Center
- Suicide: What You Need to Know – a Guide for Chiefs, NFFF
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