HOUSTON – When things go terribly wrong, we count on our first responders to get us through tough times.
For many of us, we call first responders on our worst days. These days, they’re facing daunting tasks while dealing with staffing issues and high call volumes.
What are the signs a first responder needs help?
The impact of calls often weighs heavy on the women and men in uniform. To be their own keepers, first responders learned the warning signs of someone considering taking their own life.
“From previous suicides or depression, things of going on with other guys in the department. They start off mostly by joking and we all laugh it off until it happens,” said Houston Fire Department Capt. Delance Shaw. “It usually starts with making light of this situation and what happened, and or they’ll talk about actually doing it. And, when you get to the point of they have an actual plan, then you have a problem.”
“Having a plan lets you know they walked this through. They’ve seen how it ends,” said Jeff Dill, resident of Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance. “And many people are afraid to ask that about, ‘Are you afraid to kill yourself or thinking about killing yourself,’ because they think that will put that idea into their head. And, out of the numerous people I have interviewed, that was never the catalyst. They had more deep-seeded issues than you asking that question.”
Experts, like Dill, say the reason why peer support groups work is because they are lowing the number of first responder suicides. He said education, overcoming the stigma and getting more resources for mental health specialist is needed.
Where do first responders go for help?
“The last thing you want to do is lose them to burnout or to psychopathology, that is part of the job,” Dr. Ron Acierno, Executive Director of the Trauma and Resilience Center at UTHealth Houston. “Eventually witnessing this much stuff and, you know, witnessing these types of events can be as bad as experiencing them in terms of mental health. And the cumulative effect is anxiety and depression. We sometimes call it post-traumatic stress disorder, or it could be even adjustment disorder. Such that, you have problems sleeping, you might avoid things you use to like to do, you might not be able to function as a spouse or as an EMS worker as well as you used to.”
Nationally, according to BlueHelp.org, eight first responders became victims of suicide since the beginning of 2023.
In 2022, 184 lives of law enforcement, dispatchers, firefighters/EMS, and corrections officers were claimed by the illness.
Houston firefighters still remember children killed in daycare fire
In Houston, firefighters recall a daycare fire from 2011 like it was yesterday.
“When that dispatch dropped, it said, ‘Daycare center on fire report, people trapped.’ So that seemed, I would say, that’s one of the ones that really bother you, and you’re hoping it’s not true when you get there,” Capt. Johnathan Robinson said. “We had to pass the children out of the window, because we couldn’t go back the way we came because it was very hot and smoky, and the children didn’t have protective gear like we do.”
“All the kids had to be resuscitated, with the exception of two,” Shaw added. “Every other kid that came out myself and Captain [Michael] Prigmore here on here put our hands on.”
“We went to work, and like your mind, it’s just, like, you’re like coming from an out-of-body experience,” Prigmore said. “I mean, we are trained to do it, but you rely on the training at that point. Like, I knew what I needed to do, to get it done, but the human part. I was crying. Like, I looked up and he was doing CPR on one and the other guy, it was just, like, you dropped me in the middle of the twilight zone.”
Four children died, and three others were seriously injured in the daycare center fire. The children were left alone when a pan of grease ignited a fire.
“You can’t unsee it,” Prigmore said.
Shaw said something personal, “I was more upset that the kid that I had, that couldn’t save. Yeah, that’s emotional damage, and you know every other everything else that happened. So you have to have somebody to vent to.”
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Funding for mental health specialists to work with first responders
The numbers are clear that people responsible for saving lives are losing their lives. To stop it, HFD got funding for an in-house mental health specialist.
“For me, I had Dr. Buesser on speed dial, you know, it was paramount,” Prigmore said. “I mean, he kind of puts you back together, you know, because you feel like you’re almost crazy because of the thoughts, or the dreams, or the smells that keep reoccurring with things that would normally happen, you know. But it’s, like, no, you’re not, you’re not crazy for having these things. It was, like, ‘Oh, OK.’ You know, so going back and having that avenue talking about it helped out a lot.”
Patrick ‘Marty’ Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, believes HFD found success by leaning on each other.
“That’s where we’ve come in, with the peer support on our end to try to fill those holes, but that’s not the way it should be,” Lancton said. “You can’t say mental health is important. You can’t say the behavioral mental health, PTSD of our Houston firefighters and paramedics is critical but not funded.”
“From Orlando to Detroit, to San Antonio or Roanoke, from the big towns to the small volunteer departments, we are seeing these struggles happening across the United States,” Dill said. “Our peer support team programs across the United States are working, as well as more and more councilors are beginning to understand our world.”
And the lessons are transferable.
“You know, as an officer now, I look for that in my guys,” Prigmore said. “You’re able to see guys that are exhibiting those problematic symptoms because there is a waiting list for our one doctor we can send them to. And so, we kind of have to be our own keeper.”
How you can support your loved one experiencing mental health issues
“Look for withdraw, social isolation and a change from doing things they used to like to do to no longer doing those things,” Acierno said.
“People need to know there are treatments that work. We won’t make it better. We won’t take the memories away. But, we will take the memories from feeling overwhelming to feeling bad,” he said. Bad things aren’t going to make you feel good. We admit that, but we can take it and make it so it doesn’t ruin your day every day.”
Shaw said this conversation is overdue.
“We don’t get enough attention for what we go through during the shift, after the call,” he said. “When you retire, once you retire, they just throw you away. They don’t want, don’t realize that you still taking all that experiences, that trauma, you know, right along with you. It never goes away. So yeah, this is well overdue to speak on it.”
Mental health help is here
Peer support is a key way to track the mental health of first responders and help treat the problem. If you or a loved one needs help outside your agency or department reach out to one of these resources:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK
- Copline: 1-800-267-5463
- IAFF Center of Excellence: 1-855-900-8497
- Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance: 1-847-209-8208
- Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 (Ex. 1)
This article is part of “Solutionaries,” our continuing commitment to solutions journalism, highlighting the creative people in communities working to make the world a better place, one solution at a time. Find out what you can do to help at SolutionariesNetwork.com.