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Depression and Suicide
North American Firefighter Veteran Network has been working on outreach to our firefighter veterans since 2002 in regards to depression as well as suicide intervention and prevention. This is not a pretty subject to even mention in a firehouse or around the kitchen table – unless, of course it is “station talk” about that last suicide or suicide attempt that took place on shift recently. Why is it that we can do the post-mortem round table talk on "them" but when it comes to "us”, we clam up? All who read this know and have some sort of understanding that "suicide" is a sickness in the individual that ended up with that person being dead. No coming back from that. As we have looked around the fire service community of late, one cannot but help notice the "body count" of firefighters who have taken their life, for whatever reason, is on the rise.
Fire service leaders have finally started to ask the questions that need answers. But for me, one of the most obviously stated questions I have ever heard came from a chief in a round table discussion on the subject. He stood at the table in his white shirt, with radio on his hip, cell phone attached on the other, beautiful gold badge and gold name tag on his shirt and announced to the room, "All I want to know is why are my men killing themselves? Can someone tell me?"
There it had been said, or rather dropped like a laser bomb, directed at a select few. I will not say where or when the group was assembled but I will say that it was high-level horsepower in the American Fire Service who were there to "look at and study the problem.” In his department, he had over a thousand firefighters on the line. He even had a full time psychologist on staff (for over 19 years). He had programs, for those who needed it, in counseling, behavioral health (inclusive of family support) and in pastoral intervention. Yet, in his mind, the "ease of the disease" as I put it, continues to rise and his people are taking their lives. (As a side note what was not said by him when he "stood up to comment" was that his suicide rate was in excess of 15 in a short period of time, all of which were not fully documented but "known about within the inner circles of his department".) To my way of thinking there in-lies the “dirty secrets” of "denial and deception" about the profession – whether it be volunteers or full time firefighters.
NAFFVN fully believes that "Firefighter Suicide" stemming from "Firefighter Depression" is a form of "protest" of "psychological desertion" on the battlefield of our community where we deliver our services. Those who have taken their lives leave behind them a story. We need to read their story in order to understand what we missed and are missing in prevention.
How is it that we can deliver service to our citizens on such timely and grand scales and then miss the "EARLY WARNING SIGNS" in our own station house? It is a simple, yet complex, answer. In the complex, rest assured that the "scientific types" are studying the problem. They want to help and are helping. See NAFFVN web site and Thomas Joiner on Dr. Phil Show along with front line information on depression and suicide. In the simple sense, the "psychological desertion" comes when the firefighter is "cut out of the system" or "stands alone" and feels as if his or her world is literally "falling into the basement ashes of a life not worth living". They zone out or begin to act differently, and it is those key changes in behavior that are the early warning signs. You can know about them and learn what those signs are through education.
Many years ago as a young firefighter in an IAFF local, I was taken aside by a senior member while we were washing our cars inside the firehouse. He said that I was worth saving and he was going to have a talk with me. Yes, that did get my attention, because the only saving I thought I needed at the time was staying dry while we washed our vehicles. We proceeded to talk while washing and here is the nugget of what he said. He noticed that I had been hanging out with the crews around the house and other houses in the district, in that I was going out regularly after second day shift for wings and beer and would stay out late. He said the fellows liked me and wanted me to "run in their crowd" and that if I kept on doing that, I would end up dead - or an alcoholic.
I was stunned. I felt that I knew what I was doing and had enough sense to curb it when needed. The shift continued and we went off duty. All through the night at home, I kept thinking what he had said to me. He was senior, an excellent firefighter, a man I could trust and who had taken me into a few "hot ones.” I began to count future nights or days out with the baseball and hockey, tuna juice (two and a juice) and wing nights. Sure enough, he was right. I dialed back my thinking and lifestyle to a more comfortable pace with our firefighter friends.
I noticed, too, that those who went "full steam ahead" began to see their marriages, families and careers ruined. You have all seen that happen.
Then there were those who committed suicide. You know those people, too, but in your thinking say, "I just don't know what happened there” or “If we (or I) had only known." Well, looking back we somehow did know and that we had seen the early warning signs that we had seen in the "civilians" who took their own lives.
So, like the chief who stood up and asked a question, we now must ask our questions as well, and then take a solid "look at the man in the mirror". We need to cut the onion on the subject and shed the tears, to make salt on it instead of waiting to give condolences to the family at "funeral time". We “keep the faith” in our work by delivering the necessary services to the people in our communities. We need to keep the faith with each other. We are our "Brother's Keeper" here. The stench of death from "Depression and Suicide" should cause us to stand up like the chief and ask the question "WHY are we killing ourselves?” Why are so many good firefighters choosing to exit life instead of learning from the lessons of those lives we have saved?” Life, including our life, is worth protecting and worth living. Guarding our minds from depression as a result of our work is worth the effort. It is something we can take on by understanding how “impulses from the enemy” can enter our minds and deliver deathblows to our thinking.
Gaining the upper hand is tough work and we need to stay low and go to wide angle thinking as we advance on the seat of this fire that is burning us up. Go back to basics in the beginning and use "Full PPE" and a full-on discussion around your “family” at work and your family at home. Let’s take the fight back to the seat of the fire and kick it where it belongs. Too many tears over the years, the fire buckets are full too full and we know what we, as individuals, need to do. Reach out to your brother or sister on the front line...tell them you’re there and that you care for them. Man up, Woman Up and STAND UP for EACH OTHER. EMBRACE... GIVE A HUG... GIVE A S%*T. ‘Cause brothers and sisters we ain't doing ourselves any good by not looking in that mirror and changing the way we shave or how we put our makeup on and that IS WHAT IS KILLING US.
As a final note: We need to be reminded that we care about one another. One firefighter veteran at a time... choose to stand up, choose to be counted, choose to reach out, and choose to consciously care about each other. We are in this fight for LIFE. Choose Life - as Life has chosen you to serve in the best job in the world. Let’s make it better. Let’s extinguish the "F.I.R.E.S. Within" through understanding of depression and suicide as it attempts to take some of us out of this life. The challenge is there, the clock is moving forward with the hands pointing at the "front lines" and those in the" rear with the gear,” to come up with some working answers on prevention. As we advance from here, wearing our full P.P.E. inside our heads and hearts, we know that the path will continue to have loss. Our aim should be to reduce those losses. We can do it. We must do it. We WILL DO IT.
Shannon H. Pennington
North American Firefighter Veteran Network