CLINTON TOWNSHIP — September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and it resonates across all sectors of society — including fire departments across America.
In 2018, the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs got departments around the state to “take the pledge” and be a part of the Yellow Rose Campaign, which affirms “concern and compassion” for the well-being of firefighters’ brothers and sisters.
Now, the Yellow Rose Task Force is encouraging all participating departments to exchange their usual attire for navy blue T-shirts with yellow silk screening.
“From department to department across our state, firefighters will extinguish the stigma associated with reaching out for emotional support and care,” said Gregory Flynn, of the Yellow Rose Task Force.
Clinton Township Fire Department Chief Tim Duncan said his department has undergone annual training for the last five to seven years. He recalled speakers coming to Macomb County years ago, sharing their stories with attempted suicide.
At the event Duncan attended, he listened to a retired Grand Rapids police officer tell his story.
“His story was very moving and emotional, as a lot of what he experienced prior to his attempt wasn’t as extreme as one would think,” Duncan said.
Suicidal thoughts could come from a culmination of calls, or even one “exceptionally traumatic” call, Duncan noted. He believes suicidal thoughts are so common and prevalent, not just in public safety but society as a whole, that there isn’t anyone who likely hasn’t been touched by the tragedy of suicide or attempted suicide.
“I think the prospect of suicide is not one that is in the forefront of our minds, and it doesn’t get spoken about very often,” he said. “This is the biggest problem in getting help, is that it’s not a subject that is spoken about around the dinner table. There seems to be a stigma associated with talking about your fears or thoughts, as everyone wants to be strong enough to handle any situation.”
Duncan said many firefighters deal with varying forms of depression upon leaving the profession — which could lead to suicidal thoughts.
“We oftentimes don’t know how our retired members are doing both physically and emotionally, which is an area in which we could improve on,” he said.
The Yellow Rose Campaign was a campaign that began out of the desire to provide attention to the emotional wellness of firefighters, with support from groups like the International Association of Firefighters, International Association of Fire Chiefs, Backing the Badge, veterans’ groups and others.
This focus on behavioral health, Duncan said, has revealed the “quiet killer” of suicide while simultaneously encouraging public safety members not to suppress their feelings to the point of danger.
CTFD members will don the navy tees as a means of encouragement for open discussion of a difficult topic.
“I would like the general public to be aware that it may occasionally appear that we take a casual approach to dealing with death and other traumatic experiences, but this is generally a coping mechanism to deal with things that are not normal to see,” Duncan said. “The emotional triggers are different for everyone, and we want to encourage open dialogue in dealing with these events.
“Thoughts of suicide are prevalent in all walks of life. It is not just a public safety personnel issue. The toughest thing in my career has been dealing with the death and trauma to the children in our community and will be something that stays with me for the time I have left as a Clinton Township firefighter and beyond.”