SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Since 2012, suicides have outpaced line of duty deaths for first responders nationally. It is a statistic Utah’s firefighters are not immune to. Our state has had two firefighters die by suicide in the past year.
Jack Tidrow, president of Professional Firefighters of Utah (PFFU) and active duty Salt Lake City firefighter, said suicides in his line of work are unfortunately nothing new.
“People that have done this for a long time, they just let it build up and everybody has a breaking point,” Tidrow said.
With his help, KSL surveyed 364 firefighters statewide in October to get a better understanding of the unique circumstances faced by first responders. They answered questions related to suicide and mental health.
Nearly 65% of those who responded have more than 10 years on the job.
Our findings: 77% said the trauma from their job has impacted their lives and relationships.
When we looked at the symptoms related to that trauma, 75% note disruption of sleep or insomnia; 61% said they are easily angered, 62% said they feel emotionally numb and 50% reported having negative thoughts.
When it came to suicide, 17% reported experiencing suicidal thoughts; 2% said they had attempted it and 87% say they know someone in the profession who has attempted or died by suicide.
A Life-Changing Decision
Captain Mike Stevens with the Salt Lake City Fire Department understands first-hand the pressures and circumstances behind the devastating trend.
“Most people who have done EMS or police, fire, first responder – have nightmares of the calls we’ve gone on,” said Stevens.
For Stevens, the trauma manifested through nightmares and reoccurring dreams. In 2015, after 18 years on the job, he discovered how deeply those sleepless nights had impacted his mental health.
“The big telltale sign for me was when I was looking down the barrel of my own handgun,” he said. “After having a really bad call that morning, I came home, right up to my room, set on the corner of my bed, took the handgun out of my drawer and just sort of weighed my options.”
It was a dark moment for Stevens but one he ultimately decided would change his life.
“I kind of thought about it for a second, kind of snapped out of it, put the gun away,” he said.
That decision to live was unfortunately not as easy for the 21 firefighters who have died by suicide in our state’s history.
Stevens hopes by sharing his experience he can change that.
Resources Aimed At Making A Difference
Retired Captain Jeff Dill and his non-profit Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) is currently the only organization in the nation that keeps track of firefighter suicides nationwide.
According to his research, there have been 1,567 firefighter and EMS suicide deaths recorded, with the earliest one in 1880.
FBHA puts on workshops for fire departments and EMS organizations across the world focusing on behavioral health awareness, using data they have collected on the reasons behind the suicides.
“The No. 1 reason is marital and family relationships so, therefore, we created Saving Those Who Save Others – Family Edition which is just for spouses, partners and families,” Dill said.
So far, 25,000 firefighters and EMS have gone through the training since 2011, including many in Utah.
Another resource closer to home is the Mind Shield Intervention program, created by University of Utah professor Rich Landward.
Through a year of ridealongs with first responders, Landward and his team were able to curate a 90-minute, three-part training, which research showed needed to focus heavily on the family structure.
“When that breaks down because of intense stress, if they don’t have the training, that’s where you see the depression and the anxiety,” Landward said. “Ultimately it’s when these families start to crumble, that’s when you see firefighter suicide.”
A Cultural Shift
Being open to receiving help is not easy for everyone.
Our survey found 51% of firefighters have reached out to talk to someone about their mental health, yet only 28% sought treatment from a professional.
Several comments firefighters left in the survey pointed to worries about stigma or possible professional repercussions as hurdles to seeking help.
“I definitely have fear about losing my job if I were to use mental health resources,” wrote one respondent. “Whether that fear is based in reality or totally perceived, I don’t know.”
“Traditionally, talking about feelings in the fire service has been regarded as taboo, with the culturally accepted opinion that if you can’t handle the stresses of the job, then you should get out,” wrote another.
That’s something Tidrow and his team of 150 certified peer support counselors in the state are working to change.
“Once you get past the culture and the stigmas and people are willing to say, ‘I need help’ or ‘My partner needs help,’ like – there is the key,” Tidrow said.
Since 2012, Tidrow has seen a shift in how the industry looks at suicides. There has also been a boost in available resources, such as a firefighter crisis hotline through UNI, 17 peer support groups across the state and local recovery centers.
Firefighters who took our survey have noticed those changes.
“Mental well-being is starting to shift from something nobody ever talked about amongst firefighters to something that is becoming OK to address,” wrote one firefighter.
“I genuinely feel like things are improving, yet suicides continue to increase,” wrote another.
“You can’t unsee the things we see. Neglect, trauma, homicide, suicide, burns, infant deaths,” another shared. “I believe the best chance for helping the guys is starting very early in one’s career to get help and talk about things. Once it’s bottled up and buried by the next bad call, it becomes easier to hide what’s bothering you. Our fire departments are working in the right direction to protect us as best they can. Please keep working.”
Stevens said he was glad he took advantage of lifesaving therapy.
“Yes, I should have got it sooner. But I’m glad I got it when I did. Now I can help others, steer them towards that same, that same goal, that same success that I’ve had,” he said.
He feels the more firefighters talk about their struggles, the closer they will get to ending this quiet crisis.
“It is just being able to realize, it’s not any different than any other health problem you have,” he said.
“The darkness is real, but you can always find the light if you look for it,” echoed a survey respondent.
Another resource is close to launching: a pilot version of the SafeUT Frontline app will be released by the end of the year. It is an app specifically designed to connect first responders, including law enforcement, firefighters, dispatchers, EMS and health care workers, with the emotional support they need.
It will also allow first responders to chat online with a clinician 24/7, send a tip expressing concern for themselves or a loved one, or make a call through the app to the Statewide Crisis Line.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the UNI CrisisLine at 801-587-3000.