Tuesday, September 10, 2013

World Suicide Prevention Day

RIP - Cookie, they miss you more than you
could have ever realized.
It is today.  And sadly it is a very needed awareness day.  Suicide touched my life as a teen, coming up to a party (one I was supposed to be at earlier in the day) to find that it was a drinking party gone bad.  The image of him being brought out with a sheet over his body...and his brown bagged hand slipping off the gurney is forever embossed in my mind.  Most recently a student, came to my class and only my class and hung himself in the stairwell of the auditorium later in the day.  I have seen it professionally - how it impacts my kids.  I have seen it personally - how it breaks the hearts of those left behind.  WHY did I not see it earlier?  I could have done SOMETHING!  Why didn't he come to me, I would have helped? All of us who have been through a suicide, have asked those questions.

And now I am looking at it from a very different perspective.  That of a spouse of a firefighter.

My husband has suffered through depression for nearly all of adulthood.  There were periods of time where I had to force myself to think about how I would raise the boys alone, because it was a very real possibility. Through a TON of hard work, he is now at a place that he can not only cope and function with his depression, but can thrive and help others learn as well.  He is now working with the department to reach out to our firefighters, even when they cannot reach out for themselves.  They completed a department wide training that was VERY well received.  My husband was happy to back in front of a classroom, I think.  He has also continued his own training on HOW to meet these needs in the fire department.  And the training of the entire department will continue with a house by house training.  It is very real and they are taking it very seriously.

It makes me happy that they are addressing the elephant in the room.  I know it is uncomfortable and sometimes you feel like you can't breathe because of it.  But, none-the-less it still needs to be discussed.

Depression and suicide among emergency personnel is a very real issue.  Our department has had a rush of incidents that cried out for attention from the department as a whole and they have responded to it.  Our firefighters see things everyday that Chicago Fire would never dream of putting on prime time TV and they are expected to just be okay.  Many don't talk about it at home because they feel the need to protect US from the atrocities they see on a daily basis.  Many don't talk about it at work for a myriad of other reasons.  And often times work is the last place the depression is seen.  So many of our firefighters put all their effort into being "okay" at work, that when it is seen there, something REALLY has to be done. NOW.

These are the KNOWN numbers of firefighters who have taken their own lives.  They represent the broken hearts of the families and departments left behind.

As my husband has done his research, he has found that the go-to guy is Jeff Dill.  He is an assistant chief (I believe) out of southern Illinois, founder of Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance.  As I read through his data and information, it is quite staggering.  In the past 10 years, suicides among firefighters has surpassed the HUNDRED years prior.  Now, truth and accuracy department.  Suicide has not always been okay to talk about.  It still is uncomfortable and many families still don't address it.  These numbers reflect the REPORTED  suicides. 

So, as I started talking to my husband about this last night, he was more than happy to share his research with me.  Partially because he is always happy to know more about something than me, but also because he is so very passionate about this topic.  He has been where many of these firefighters are and knows how you cannot see that tomorrow can be any better than today.  He know how it feels to truly be without hope.  As I went through the suicide portion of his presentation, the numbers were staggering. The implications were huge.  And I had to step away from my computer.

I started to work on this last night, with my FF right next to me on the couch.  But I couldn't.  He had to be gone.  And here I am back at it, in an empty house where I can think through this.
There was one bullet in his presentation that will struck a chord with me - 
On the surface it contradicts the core beliefs of firefighting: Courage, Honor, Self-sacrifice, Confidence, Strength.
How true is that.  You feel like this is your only option and have no clue where to reach out and get help and yet it goes against every fiber of your being.  

We don't know the true numbers that reflect the prevalence of suicide in departments.  The recent suicide in Atlanta stuck with me for a very silly reason - we shared a first name.  There are just not that many Katrinas out there, that you don't hear it anytime it is mentioned.  Katrina Sims was only 24 years old and took her life at the firehouse.  In quarters! One of our own, here, recently took her own life, shaking the family to the core.  It is very real and hopefully the fire world as a whole will continue to bring awareness to her ranks.

Here is what the statistics of KNOWN firefighter suicides tell us.  Again, this does not include those that go unreported or attempted suicides.  An extreme example of attempted suicide was the Chicago firefighter recently shot by police in Mount Greenwood.  Suicide by Cop was his believed intention.  He thanked the Sgt. as he was loaded in the ambulance.  

So, the numbers...
  • Most FF suicides have been active firefighters, under the age of 50.
  • 70% were carried out by white males.
  •  Majority were deaths by firearms.
  • NINETY PERCENT suffered from one of the following conditions - depression, substance abuse, schizophrenia, bi-polar, anxiety, or other mood disorders/phobias.
We, as fire wives, are the most valuable resource our departments have in addressing the mental health needs and prevention of suicide among firefighters.  We see them without their game faces on.  We see them at their lowest points in the dark of night that comes to them in the middle of the day.  As much as we would like to believe the Brotherhood will lift them up, we are truly the ones on the front lines.

And so, how in the heck do we do that, you ask. 

Know your FF.  I can see that my firefighter is going to crash LONG before he can.  I know his triggers and his signs.  I also know I can point it out to him, without  fear of  him lashing out.  That has not always been the case, but that is where we are now.  I know how hard it is and it is easier to NOT get yelled at for bringing it to his attention, BUT it needs to be done.

Reach out to other firefighters in his circle.  They are his family, that makes them your family.  Find out who you can reach out to when you see that things are starting to spiral downward. 

Have the number for you EAP readily available.  Ask for it.  Call your union if your FF won't offer it.  In this day and age, Google is your friend in cases like this.  Counseling is often needed and sometimes it is better coming from you, sometimes it is better coming from another firefighter.  Again, only you know your FF that intimately.  

Love and support your firefighter.  If you get to this, you have reached the worse part of "for better or worse".  I will not sugar coat it, it will suck and drain your soul.  But, it is when they need us the most.  

Create a support network for YOURSELF.  As I said earlier, this journey is soul sucking.  Make sure your faith community is involved - for you, make sure your friends are there so YOU have someone to talk to.  If you need counseling because you are struggling to get through this - THAT IS OKAY!   Get the help you need, as well.   

Firefighters, if you think you are struggling, accept the help.  It is not a sign of weakness.  No one will question your skills.  It is a sign of your HUMANITY, which can be lost in this world you are part of.  There is always a better path than suicide, even if you can't see it.  Sometimes you have to let someone else in, no matter how hard it is or the fact that it totally scares the crap out of you.  Reach out to your wife, your boss, your brothers.  REACH OUT TO SOMEONE. You are not alone.

Resources -

  • FireStrong.org has a great section regarding suicide.
  • Again, Jeff Dill has an amazing site, please do check it out.  His questionnaire is something I wish I would have had all those years ago when my FF was struggling so desperately with his demons.
Your department's Employee Assistance Program - EAP.  Get this number, put it in your phone.  It varies from department to department, but I cannot stress that enough. 

So, today, we need to remember those who saw no other way out.  And we need to reach out to those who are struggling - in the fire service or not.  Depression and suicide is a very real issue that needs to be addressed, not ignored.  It is okay if the rescuers need to be rescued.  That is what we are all here.  Reach out, don't ignore the signs because it is easier.  Don't think you are bothering someone.  You and your firefighter are never alone.  That is the bottom line.


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