My family tree has several branches that were broken off abruptly by suicides. As a young girl, I learned about stigma associated with suicide through the whispers and the church’s refusal to allow a full funeral mass for an uncle who took his own life.
Portia Rawles took on the taboo topic of firefighter suicide in 2003. While we had no reader response to the article, Rawles was surprised to hear that in addition to those in her article, nine more firefighters from across the country had died by their own hands.
Last week’s death of well-respected Ralston (Neb.) Fire Chief Kyle Ienn once again brought forth the pain and unending questions of suicide — firefighter or not. Do firefighters have a higher number of suicides than the average population? I don’t know. We can talk about average ages or average profiles, but all of those words are meaningless when someone you know or love takes his or her own life. No one knows the private hell that a person goes through that would make them see no other way out of his troubles.
Over the past decade or two, the fire service has lost several prominent individuals; some departments have suffered multiple suicides. After each suicide, a call for heightened awareness is raised, but little more. Last summer, the National Fallen Fire Fighters Foundation convened an industry summit on the issue of suicide in the fire service. Three of the nation’s absolute leading experts in suicide research and intervention provided state of the art overviews to an assembled group of forty fire service leaders and organizations. As a result of the meeting, a summary of recommendations to help address suicide and depression in our industry was compiled in "Issues of Depression and Suicide in the Fire Service."
“Broader-scale suicide-prevention programming has had, overall, limited impact,” said Dr. Richard Gist, principal assistant to the fire chief in Kansas City, Mo., and an expert in suicide research and intervention. “That doesn’t mean that suicides can’t be prevented. Many are the result of highly complex interactions of circumstances and conditions that are treatable if addressed at amenable times in appropriate ways. Too often, by the time suicidal action is imminent, ties are lost or cut, people become isolated, and opportunities to intervene are lost.”
Is it possible to change the stigma of mental illness? It’s happened with other diseases. Tuberculosis, leprosy and AIDS all carried stigmas; however, through research and education through the media, many myths have been disproved. It’s time to bring mental health out of the dark ages. Maybe everyone should have an annual mental wellness checkup.The stigma of seeing a therapist, a psychiatrist or taking medications will end by openness or as I once overheard, “At least I’m getting help for my problems.”
“The bottom line is this: It takes an act to stop an act,” Gist said. “If you’re worried about someone, reach out. Ask. Don’t just point them to help, take them to help. Take care of our own so everyone goes home.”
If you feel at risk or know someone who may be at risk, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or seek emergency medical assistance.