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Suicide Rates Are Growing Among Firefighters

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On Saturday night, David Dangerfield – the fire rescue battalion chief for Indian River County, Florida – posted a harrowing message on Facebook. “PTSD for Firefighters is real,” he wrote. “If your love one is experiencing signs get them help quickly. 27 years of deaths and babies dying in your hands is a memory that you will never get rid off. It haunted me daily until now. My love to my crews. Be safe, take care. I love you all.”

• What is PTSD?

An hour later, Dangerfield, after 27 years of service and silence, died by suicide, the TCPalm reported.

Among firefighters like Dangerfield, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide have grown increasingly common. According to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, a firefighter is three times more likely to die by suicide than they are to die in the line of duty.

“Because of a lack of behavioral health training, we’re really starting to see an increase in suicides,” said Jeff Dill, a retired firefighter captain, licensed counselor and founder of Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA). “They’ve trained us to be the best firefighters… We’re trained to give help, not to ask for it.”

Dill has been tracking suicides among firefighters since 2009, when FBHA was founded. The FBHA is the only organization that tracks suicide among firefighters. Society looks at suicide so negatively, he said, it’s hard to get companies that make equipment for firefighters to donate to our cause because of the stigma.

So many of us are out there suffering from addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression,” Dill told The Mighty. ”We’re trained to act a certain way on the job, that doesn’t just stop when you head out the door to go home.”

Based on Dill’s data, 102 firefighters have taken their own lives in 2016. That does not include Dangerfield or the seven other suicides recently reported to the FBHA. While Dill goes extensive lengths to collect his data, he estimates only 40 percent of firefighter suicides have been reported to the organization. From the numbers he’s collected around the nation, suicide among firefighters has steadily increased since 2011.

With the growing rates of PTSD in America’s firefighters, police officers and other first responders, Dangerfield’s message to seek help immediately, has never been more important.

If you are concerned a firefighter is at risk of suicide, there are signs to be on the lookout for, Dill advised. A FBHA survey of over 800 fire and emergency medical services chiefs found that those who die by suicide tend to exhibit signs of recklessness; anger; isolation; loss of competence skills and abilities and sleep deprivation before their deaths. “Talk to them about it,” he said. “There are two questions you should ask right away, ‘Do you feel like killing yourself?’ and ‘Do you have a plan?’”

If the answer to either of these questions is yes, it’s time to get them help. “Walk the walk,” Dill tells the firefighters he speaks to. Because FBHA’s studies found that marital problems, depression, medical issues and addiction contribute to suicide more often than PTSD, Dill advises addressing underlying issues, and taking them to marriage counseling or an AA meeting. And, if you aren’t part of the firefighter community, be patient. Many firefighters find it difficult to open up in therapy because traditional counselors don’t understand the culture and terminology of the firefighting community, he added.

“I believe the key is education,” he said. “It wasn’t done five years ago, but it’s becoming more common now. I believe we’re about 15 years away from where I’d like to see us with behavioral health education at every level.”

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Originally published: October 18, 2016
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