A photo of Rich MacKinnon Jr. a Whitman fire fighter of 19 years and President of the Professional Fire Fighters of Mass.Massachusetts firefighters are more than twice as likely to kill themselves as civilians due to untreated depression and PTSD stemming from repeated exposure to death and destruction, according to a new report on mental illness and suicide among first responders.
The study by the Boston-based Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for people with disabilities, estimates that the suicide rate for Bay State firefighters is 20 per 100,000 people, compared to 9 per 100,000 for civilians.
“First responders are heroes who run towards danger every day in order to save the lives of others; they are also human beings, and their work exerts a toll on their mental health,” said Jay Ruderman, the nonprofit’s president. “It is our obligation to support them in every way possible to make sure that they feel welcome and able to access life-saving mental health care. This white paper should serve as a critical call to action to all who care about our heroes in red and blue.”
At least 22 Massachusetts firefighters have taken their own lives since 1996, researchers found, and four EMS workers have done so since 1997. State-specific data on police officer suicide is unavailable, but nationally, their rate is as high as 17 per 100,000 people, while the rate for firefighters is 18 per 100,000, compared to 13 per 100,000 for the general population.
Andover Fire Rescue Chief Michael B. Mansfield recalled mourning the loss of one of his firefighters to suicide in March 2010.
“In the firefighting profession, we are constantly responding to horrific scenes that the most average citizens could not imagine,” Mansfield said. “Firefighters are constantly under heightened stress, which increases their vulnerability to potential mental health issues. The firefighter culture in and of itself demands that firefighters be physically fit and mentally strong. Most firefighters will not speak about the problems they may be experiencing, thus leading them to make poor decisions or have poor coping mechanisms after witnessing tragedy.”
Richard MacKinnon, a 19-year Whitman firefighter who heads the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, said one of the reasons its members have a higher suicide rate than the general population is that many are combat veterans, who are given priority over other people applying for firefighter positions.
Traditionally, firefighters were encouraged to talk about traumatic events mostly at “critical-incident stress debriefings,” MacKinnon said.
But about two years ago, as attitudes toward mental illness evolved, the organization established a statewide members assistance committee made up of nine firefighters trained in peer counseling to whom local unions could refer members who want to talk through problems confidentially with someone who has had similar experiences.
For Mike Jefferson, a Somerville firefighter who heads the committee, that may mean talking to someone for hours on the phone or at a coffee shop, referring the person to a clinician or taking him or her to a hospital.
“In the past, these issues were something you really didn’t talk about, but we want to change that so that you have a good life, on and off the job,” Jefferson said.
“Don’t wait until it’s too late. Don’t wait until you become one of those 20 firefighters who kill themselves.”