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Editorial: We Should be There for First Responders

First responders' jobs are traumatic almost by definition. They run toward the danger. They go into the burning building. They put themselves on the line to help us. How could that not take an emotional toll on them?

first responder
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To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call the new 988 three-digit hotline or visit Suicide prevention services can also be reached at 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255).

First responders' jobs are traumatic almost by definition. They run toward the danger. They go into the burning building. They put themselves on the line to help the rest of us. How could that not take an emotional toll on them?

Tragically, Bangor experienced a gutting recent reminder of that toll. A young firefighter, Jacob Madden , died by suicide in late April.

"Jake was a loving and caring man, who always kept humor at the center of his life. His bright smile and consistent banter brought joy to everyone that he interacted with," his obituary reads. "Jake had an eccentric and quirky personality that was irreplaceable. Those closest to him knew him as nostalgic, sentimental, and a true romantic. Above all, Jake was an extremely proud father and family man."

Bangor firefighter Jared Willey , president of Local 772 of the International Association of Firefighters , spoke with Bangor Daily News reporter Kathleen O'Brien about first responders struggling with mental health and the high risk of dying by suicide. Firefighters and police officers are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, according to the U. S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention .

Willey said that mental health support is available, but stigma and a "suck it up and be a man mentality" can be barriers to getting help.

"We have to talk about mental health and suicide because, if we don't, we're not going to see change," Willey said. "We don't want to lose another firefighter, so we have to make sure everyone feels comfortable enough to sit down and talk about it. If my back hurts because of a fire last week, I'm going to sit with others and complain about it and get it fixed. The same needs to go for mental health."

We could not agree more. That is true this month, with May being Mental Health Awareness Month, and it is true all year long. And this is an instance where everyone can help to be part of the solution. Across society, we need to normalize talking about and addressing mental health challenges. We owe it to the first responders who put their physical and emotional well-being on the line, just as we owe it to our neighbors, friends and family. There is nothing wrong with needing help.

Aside from this universal, interpersonal step to help support firefighters and other first responders, there is also a much more bureaucratic step to take. O'Brien explained how the U.S. Fire Administration has only recorded six firefighter suicides since its On-Duty Firefighter Fatality Program's started in the 1970s. Other firefighter groups estimate that there are roughly 100 firefighter suicides each year in the U.S.

Clearly, the Fire Administration's reporting system isn't fully tracking this issue, and that is a problem. To better address an issue like this, policymakers and the public need to be fully aware of its scope. That requires having accurate and comprehensive data.

As O'Brien reported, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has said the Fire Administrator's system only counts on-duty deaths and relies on voluntary reporting, so the seemingly obvious steps would be to update those elements of the system. The federal government should find a more proactive way of collecting this information from departments across the country, and make sure to include off-duty deaths by suicide — because the trauma doesn't just shut off when a first responder is off the clock.

"After that call and when you're left with your own thoughts is when it haunts you," Willey told O'Brien about witnessing tragedies on the job. "Many people have night terrors because when you don't process those traumatic events, your brain re-lives it when you sleep."

First responders need to know that resources exist to help them process that trauma and that there is nothing wrong about needing that help.


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