Wednesday, March 6, 2019

First Responders: Trauma, Mental Health, and Suicide

People living in California have seen the rapid rise of wildfires. Millions of acres have burned in the last decade and a half, and more than 150 Californians have lost their lives in such fires — including firefighters. In 2018 alone, 1,035,939 acres burned; in the “Camp” fire, 86 people perished.

Devastating forest fires are not a rare phenomenon in the Golden State. Drought and hotter summers lead to larger, more severe fires. Each time nature or human error results in a natural disaster, millions of people are affected, and a group of some the bravest Americans put their safety on the line to snuff out the flames. It takes a special kind of individual to volunteer to run into an inferno, but such individuals are not immune to the trauma that can accompany such heroic actions.

According to data from the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, at least 115 firefighters and emergency medical service workers committed suicide in 2017. The suicide rate among first responders is estimated at 18 per 100,000 people, compared to 13 per 100,000 with the general population, according to a report by the Ruderman Family Foundation and federal data. More firefighters took their own lives than died in the line of duty between 2014 to 2017.

First Responders Experience Trauma Regularly


Research indicates that the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), binge drinking, and depression is higher among firefighters than the general population, The Los Angeles Times reports. Repeated exposure to traumatic events – whether it be in fires or fatal car wrecks – takes a severe toll on a person’s psyche. Moreover, society expects first responders to be brave and heroic every day; this has the unintended effect of causing the affected to keep quiet about their mental health problems.

“When people call 911, they want someone there who’s going to be brave and heroic and handle the situation,” said Jeff Dill, a retired fire captain in Illinois who is a licensed counselor and founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance. Dill adds that when job-related stress crops up “we bury it.” 

When mental illnesses – anxiety, addiction, depression, or PTSD – are ignored, those suffering are at extreme risk of decline and self-harm. First responders require support. They need to be able to discuss and process their experiences without fear of judgment.

"You can certainly imagine where difficulties within the job, perhaps not having effective coping strategies …would lead to post-traumatic stress or depression, which might result in alcohol use, which could lead to the end of a relationship or loss of a job," said Marc Kruse, clinical psychologist with the Austin Fire Department and Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services in Texas.

Will Mitchell, whose firefighter son Ryan committed suicide in 2017, and Jason McMillan, who fought fires alongside Ryan Mitchell, took part in a trauma retreat to deal with his anxiety and depression recently, according to the article. Now the two men are working to make firefighters more aware of behavioral health problems, the article reports. Equally important, they are fighting to end the shame that first responders associate with seeking help. Throughout the U.S., fire chiefs, labor leaders, and counselors are stepping up their efforts to help firefighters before their despair leads to self-harm.

HVRC “Heroes Program”


At Hemet Valley Recovery & Sage Retreat, we offer a program for first responders struggling with alcohol or substance use disorder and co-occurring mental illness. Please contact us today to receive a complimentary assessment, call us at 866-273-0868. Treatment is available, recovery is possible, and we can help you take the first step toward healing.

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