Suicide a silent crisis for police and firefighters

Posted at 6:31 PM, Aug 23, 2018

BURLINGTON, Kentucky — "There's a satisfaction you get from helping people that you can't get from anything else," firefighter Phil Hall said this week.

That's why he chose his profession, which sends him running headfirst into the worst days of others' lives. The chance to save what matters — people, homes, treasured possessions — seemed worth wading into scenes of heartbreak and tragedy. He knew he might die on the job; it seemed like an occupational risk.

He didn't expect he'd end up wanting to die by his own hand.

"The stuff just starts piling up, right?" he said. "(You think) the only way to stop all the nightmares, the flashbacks, and all the other life stresses that pile up on you is to tap out."

Hall's case isn't an unusual one. First responders like him, on whom most of us depend to help in the darkest moments we'll ever experience, shoulder multiple lifetimes of trauma, crisis and fear in their nine-to-five jobs. As a result, they have higher rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide than the general population.

According to a study conducted by the Ruderman Family Foundation, a nonprofit focused on advocating for disability rights, police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians are more likely to die by suicide than to be killed in the line of duty. The wall of silence and shame surrounding such deaths can make it even harder for those experiencing suicidal feelings to reach out for help when they need it, meaning the scale of the problem could be far greater than what existing data suggests.

Hall was fortunate. Friends connected him with the University of Cincinnati Health Stress Center, where he began treatment for PTSD and found healthier ways to deal with his dark feelings.

"It helped save my life," he said.

He hopes other firefighters in the same position will seek help, too. Although the job demands people who do it be tough, resilient and cool-headed on the clock, no one should feel ashamed for responding to extraordinarily stressful situations with extraordinary feelings of stress.

"You're not alone, if you're out there," Hall said. "You're not alone."

If you or a loved one is a first responder struggling with suicidal feelings or symptoms of PTSD, you can seek help through Kentucky Firefighters Peer Support, the University of Cincinnati Health network and professional organizations such as the International Association of Firefighters.

For those dealing with thoughts of suicide more generally, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at (800) 273-8255. Those who are uncomfortable talking on the phone can text with a counselor at 741-741.