By Jeff Dill
The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) is well into its second year of traveling across America to educate the fire service on suicide awareness/prevention through its “Saving Those Who Save Others” workshops. Along their journies, workshop presenters have received numerous insights from firefighters and EMTs who have suffered from depression and suicidal ideations, and some who even attempted suicide.
FBHA workshops encourage fire departments to “Challenge with Compassion." Below are the five most-common warning signs of depression. If you see firefighters who display these five signs, step in to help.
- Sleep deprivation. Both sleep loss and too much sleep are key indicators of emotional issues going on in people’s lives. Because we are human beings first, not only are we effected by the “job” and what we see and do, but also from issues in our personal lives that can deeply scar us. Pay attention to those around you who display signs of sleep problems, plus keep an internal watch on yourself.
- Anger. During our workshops. we discuss anger and when I ask if people know of firefighters on their department who display anger I get the usual laughs and smiles because a face or name comes to mind very quickly. The biggest response from attendees is they “avoid” that person so they won’t be the subject of their wrath. Yet, we need to deal with this in the fire service because approximately ten percent of FBHA suicide data collection shows firefighters have taken their spouses/partners life as well as their own. I am not saying they were all related to anger or that an angry firefighter will kill someone, but anger is an emotion for people to address in their lives.
- Impulsive behavior. This sign often is noticed in firefighters but not recognized as a warning sign. I have spoken to hundreds of firefighters and family members who now reflect back and say they saw some type of change yet didn’t realize there might be an issue. An example might be the firefighter or EMT who didn’t approve of guns, never held one and didn’t understand why people buy them, yet one day came into the firehouse and boasted about the recent purchase of two hand guns and a rifle. Would you ask him what type he bought, or question the motive behind it because it didn’t sound right?
- Isolation. How many times have we seen a FF/EMT begin to isolate from members at the firehouse and we hear the usual banter to “just let them be, they are going through a divorce” or whatever the issue is. This is absolutely incorrect. This is the time we need to stand by our brothers and sisters. If they tell you to “leave them alone” respect that but always say this back to them to build for the future. “I am here for you when you want to talk, but I want to know if I have problems can I come to you to talk?” It helps break down the resistance and you might just find them coming to you in the near future to talk.
- Loss of confidence in skills. As a career officer, and counselor this was one that was new to me regarding the loss of confidence in skills. Numerous firefighters and EMTs stated they just loss confidence in doing their job, even when it came to the basics of starting IVs, drug therapy, or even pumping from the engine. Loss of identity and confidence in one’s abilities can be signs of depression or suicidal ideations.
This is just a very quick overview of the signs and symptoms FBHA has found these past years. For more information about FBHA, visit www.ffbha.org
Jeff Dill is the assistant chief of the Palatine (Ill.) Rural Fire Protection District and founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA), which collects data on firefighter suicides and then develops workshops based on the data. He holds a master’s degree and is a licensed counselor.