First-responders are trained to go in when others are running out. But at the end of the day, police officers and firefighters must deal with emotions like anyone else.
Because they see tragedy, suffering and often the worst that society has to offer, it can take its toll mentally, leading to some of the highest suicide rates of any profession.
“This [suicide] has been going on ever since police have been police,” Sedona Police Department’s Chief David McGill said. “It’s probably in the last decade or two that light has been shined on this hidden problem that we have. We’ve come a long way since then. We now recognize the problem and have done some things to mitigate the downfall of our profession.”
He said one popular way is having debriefings after a major incident that allows the officers to discuss their thoughts and feelings in an open and honest way. Most recently, this was used after police and firefighters responded to Midgley Bridge where a 2-year-old boy fell to his death over Labor Day weekend.
For generations the police profession shunned the idea of discussing emotions, McGill said. But these days they’re getting better at recognizing post-traumatic stress disorder due to the pitfalls of their profession. Often, if things aren’t talked about it manifests into something like suicide. As preventative means, they will bring in psychologists and nurses who are trained to help those who have gone through a traumatic experience.
“It’s about getting together and sharing our feelings,” McGill said. “We talk about how we did things tactically but now we also talk about what we saw and how to deal with those things. As supervisors we’re getting better at recognizing symptoms of stress and encourage them to talk to a specialist. There’s no longer a stigma attached to it.”
Sedona Fire District’s Chief Kris Kazian agreed.
“We’re the ones used to rescuing people, so for us to need to be rescued can kind of have a ‘we’re supposed to be stronger than that’ kind of feel to it,” he said. “We’re not impervious from being impacted — I don’t know how you couldn’t be. For many years, suicide in the fire service was not talked about. If your agency had a suicide and how you dealt with it probably wasn’t public.”
Like the police department, SFD offers help for those who have dealt with traumatic experiences. Some of the signs they are now on the look out for include isolation, loss of confidence, sleep deprivation, anger and being impulsive.
“We have to take care of our own folks but we didn’t get trained for that back in the day,” Kazian said. “Fortunately, that’s now changing.”
McGill said when he was in the police academy more than 30 years ago he was taught to put aside his emotions, deal with a situation and then move on. But today, many police academies have a segment that deals with mental health and being a healthy police officer — both mind and body.
“They are recognizing that we are human just like anyone else,” he said. “We are hired from the human population so we have frailties and problems just like everyone else.”
Local psychologist Carol Gandolfo is attempting to create peer groups so that firefighters and police officers can talk to others in their profession who are trained to see the signs of depression or possible suicide. Gandolfo has been working with the SFD for several years and was highly praised by Kazian. The police department plans to soon follow suit.
“It’s easy for cops to put on this bravado face and say, ‘I’m good. I’m OK, I don’t need help,’” McGill said. “It’s up to us [supervisors] to say, ‘I know you’re good but come on in, lock the door and let’s talk to an expert who can bring out some feelings that maybe you weren’t aware of.’”
Kazian said today’s approach when talking with peers is that instead of simply asking how the person is, they are told to ask direct questions such as ‘Do you feel like killing yourself?’ That’s because for the one being asked it’s often easier to answer a direct question.
“We need to walk the walk — if your brother or sister needs help, we need to stand up and be by their side through these tough times,” Kazian said.
According to Jeff Dill, founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, since 2006 there have been 850 documented firefighter suicides nationwide. But he estimates that represents less than half of the actual numbers.
Statistics from the national organization Badge of Life show that there were 143 confirmed police suicides in 2009 but that number dropped to 108 last year. A 2015 report in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services asked 4,000 first-responders if they had ever attempted suicide — nearly 7 percent said they had. That is 10 times higher than the general public.
“The numbers are getting better but they are still too high,” McGill said. “We’re losing more officers by our own hands than we do by what the public would picture such as dying in a hail of gunfire.”
For some police and firefighters, they may be able to leave their job at the front door. But for others that’s not the case and their jobs carry over into their personal lives. That’s why both chiefs said they encourage their employees to have productive outlets away from work whether that’s sports, family time or hobbies.
Quite often that doesn’t happen, which is why they said their professions have very high rates of alcoholism, prescription drug abuse and divorce.
Both the SPD and SFD have an active employee assistance program that is not only there for mental health issues but other areas such as financial and legal advice. It’s all part of trying to be there so that the employee doesn’t become another statistic.
“Most of the time there are warning signs,” McGill said. “I don’t want to be that guy who misses the warning signs. I don’t want to be the boss and have one of my people do that [suicide] and in retrospect it was clear that there were warning signs and we could have done something. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but shame on us for not taking the leadership role on that.”
Kazian agreed and added, “We’re open to finding the best practice and open to implementing the best solutions but it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. That’s the hard part. Each scenario is different because in the end, we’re human too.”
For more information about suicide awareness, contact Mental Health Coalition Verde Valley at mentalhealthcoalitionvv.org.