Firefighters are the definition of heroes. Along with other public safety personnel, they put themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis for the greater good. But just because they exude bravery doesn’t mean they don’t struggle with their own personal battles behind the scenes.
Yuba City Fire Chief Jesse Alexander has worked in the profession for 20 years. It’s never been an easy topic discussing suicide amongst his peers, but he’s trying to make it less taboo. Seeing that September is Suicide Prevention Month – this week marked National Suicide Prevention Week – Alexander’s team is wearing special ribbons to shed light on the issue and spark a much-needed public discussion.
“What we are trying to do is change that stigma that is associated with suicide. When I first got hired as a firefighter, we didn’t talk about (post-traumatic stress disorder) or suicide, but you would recognize it in some employees who were struggling with alcoholism or other issues,” Alexander said. “We are trying to get in front of it, but they are difficult conversations to have.”
According to California Professional Firefighters, the largest statewide organization dedicated to serving the needs of career firefighters, fire service employees are four times more likely to die by suicide than in traditional line-of-duty deaths, and one-in-three firefighters have had suicidal thoughts.
It’s hard to not suffer from PTSD when an individual’s profession requires them to regularly respond to traumatic incidents, Alexander said, whether it be to a multiple-person fatality involving children or a search and rescue event during larger incidents like the Camp Fire, or even most recently during the Bear Fire. The topic hits home for Alexander, who said one of his previous employees tried to commit suicide in a violent way.
“It’s not just one big incident, but a combination of all the little ones as well. It’s like filling up a cup, when it overflows it can lead to issues in your personal life,” he said.
The issue isn’t just tied to the profession either, especially in the age of COVID-19. Since the pandemic began, Alexander said, two of his civilian friends have committed suicide.
“I think the stigma surrounding suicide is definitely decreasing,” Alexander said. “With our efforts, what we are trying to do is open up those lines of communication.”
By wearing the ribbons, his department wants to bring the public’s attention to the topic and the importance of seeking help when struggling with mental health issues. Internally, his department has also opted to temporarily forgo normal firefighter training and have instead worked to provide personnel with resources and specified training revolved around suicide awareness and prevention. Personnel are being provided resources on how to recognize a problem and how best to initiate conversations among fellow firefighters, as well as outline criteria on ways to reduce stress.
“As firemen, we confide in each other more than we confide in others,” he said.
One way firefighters decompress after responding to a traumatic call is through critical incident stress debriefings, which see personnel come together to talk about their experiences after an event.
Alexander said the recent fires around the region have sparked flashbacks for some and led to PTSD incidents. With the anniversary of 9/11 on Friday and everything going on with the pandemic, it’s just as easy for members of the general public to be experiencing issues as well, he said.
Signs that someone is struggling can be as subtle as a change in mood, or someone who is typically outgoing becoming an introvert. Other tell-tale signs include depression, trouble with sleeping or someone struggling with substance abuse.
“This isn’t just for firefighters. That’s why we are wearing the ribbons, to hopefully encourage that conversation,” Alexander said. “Anyone who is struggling should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. It’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can help start those difficult conversations.”