In a somber and poignant moment during last week’s city council meeting, Flint Fire Chief Ray Barton shared, at the request of council, news of a recent untimely death of one of Flint’s long-time firefighters, John Stenger.
In a hushed voice, Chief Barton explained, “Our firefighter lost his life to suicide.” He said more first responders around the country die to suicide than in the line of duty.
Flint firefighter John Stenger, 50, died by suicide on Sunday, April 17. Stenger was a decades-long Flint firefighter and a player on the Flint Rouges Rugby Football team. According to a brief online memorial stated that Stenger’s family will release an obituary at a later date.
Barton explained Flint’s first responders come face to face with many traumatic and tragic situations. Barton said that last week, Flint’s Fire Station 6 responded to two different calls where infants died. One infant was lost to SIDS (Sudden infant death syndrome) and the other died by a grandmother rolling over onto the infant.
Barton said he had been talking with Stenger every day for three weeks before he died. The Chief said he even talked with Stenger the day before he died by suicide.
Council members express condolences and care
Councilperson Judy Priestly (Ward 4) told Chief Barton, “As someone who has suffered from depression in the past there is nothing you could have done.
“It’s not something I talk about often. I had it planned and I knew what I was going to do but God stopped me. When you’re in those depths of despair there’s not much you can do.”
Chief Barton responded that he understood that too. He went on to explain, “John walked around like he didn’t care about anything but really he cared about everything. John Stenger took care of the Frost Street neighborhood. Those people will miss him.”
Chief Barton recalled that Stenger would come to him and want to pay for dumpsters to be placed in neighborhoods so neighbors could clean up. But he never wanted anyone to know that he had paid for the dumpsters. Barton said, “He didn’t just do this one time. He did it every year. His mom was in Kith Haven and even after she died he still went there and donated and did things.”
Councilperson Ladel Lewis (Ward 2) said, “Thank you for being transparent and talking about suicide. Talking about suicide is a very difficult discussion.”
“It’s a very tough job. Going to homes, like just seeing infants, just seeing people at their worst, and they’re dependent on you to make it better … You take home a lot of trauma. So I understand. And I also would like to thank you for being transparent about suicide because suicide is a very hard discussion that we don’t have.”
Councilperson Lewis offered as a resource St. Marks Baptist Church at McClellan and Dupont streets. Lewis said the church has “a strong suicide prevention program with counselors and therapists on call. So if you are not okay or have a family member that’s not okay this is a resource.”
Councilperson Eric Mays (Ward 1) offered prayers for Stenger’s family and the fire department.
Mays added, “Let’s lean on each other because you got some terrible people out here. The people will put pressure on you, the job will put pressure on you, and then you have family instances, and so I appreciate you telling this city … that it was suicide.”
Genesee County lacks programs for first responder suicide prevention
Barton had to leave to attend a Genesee County Fire Chief’s meeting where chiefs from 16 area fire departments gather for a monthly meeting.
As he left, Barton said, “It’s ironic but on the meeting’s agenda is a presentation by a group to help departments deal with and prevent officer suicide.” Barton said the agenda was published a week ago, just before Stenger’s suicide.
Presently Genesee County does not have special support programs in place to assist first responder departments for preventing suicide, Barton said.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention it is one of the top 10 causes of death in most age groups. In 2016, 75 firefighters died in the line of duty, per National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) statistics. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance reports that 139 were reported to have died from suicide in the same time period, and these numbers are likely under-reported due to the stigma surrounding suicide and because of the different ways in which deaths are categorized and reported. This means that firefighters were nearly one and a half times more likely to die from suicide than they were to die in the line of duty.