Suicide. The very mention of the word creates uneasiness. The stigma and tragedy associated with suicide makes it one of those events that we hope never happens. And one we don’t talk about. Seeing an increase over the last few years in member suicides and suicidal behavior, we knew we had to talk about it – not only to help prevent  suicides among our ranks, but to address how the loss of a member affects the local’s members and their families. It can be emotionally and mentally debilitating for the members left behind. The next edition of the International Fire Fighter magazine looks at fire fighter suicide, and seeing the news story about Phoenix and its efforts to address the rash of suicides in the fire department there, we decided to share an excerpt from our story:

Courage, resilience, self-sacrifice, confidence and the ability to handle the most difficult situations. These are the words that come to mind when we think about what it takes to be a fire fighter. Fire fighters are resilient, but some may be less able to cope and may suffer from depression, isolation and other behavioral problems. And as we have seen, some may choose suicide as the only solution.

Suicide  is the 11th leading cause of death in North America. In the United States, on average, 31,045 people died from completed suicides each year, with about 85 suicides each day. In Canada, the average is 3,650  each, or about 10 each day. Suicide often comes as a great shock to loved ones and friends. Some risk factors to watch for include alcohol abuse, mental illness, overwhelming grief after a death of a family member, and divorce or separation. Of those who committed suicide, 70-80  percent suffered from alcohol abuse and a mood disorder, such as major depression, bipolar disorder or dysthymia (a chronic dark or sad mood); 40- 60 percent were intoxicated at the time of death; and 56 percent used a firearm to carry out the suicide.

The greater number of stressors results in higher suicide risk. Of the risk factors, divorce, exposure to traumatic events and numerous stressors are associated directly with the occupation of fire fighting. Studies involving fire fighters have found a causal relationship between the occupation’s high stress level and depressed mood.

It’s said that every suicide results in a significant, negative impact on a minimum of six people. In the case of an IAFF member suicide, however, the close camaraderie and teamwork significantly increases the number of people negatively affected. As most fire fighters and EMS personnel will attest, they are trained from their first day of the academy to look to each other first for assistance and to never leave or abandon their crew no matter the emergency.
It’s a myth that suicide happens without warning. The majority of those who complete suicide give definite signals of their intentions. These warning signs and clues are called suicidal communications and will be in the form of statements, expressed emotions or actions. In general, the more warning signs a person displays, the greater the risk for suicide.

However, some warning signs are stronger indicators than others and are given greater priority. Some action-oriented warning signs include having difficulties at work or changing work habits, neglecting appearance, losing interest in activities, dropping out of activities, relapsing into drug or alcohol use after a period of recovery, displaying anger and rage, giving away possessions, making final or funeral arrangements, ending significant relationships, improving in mood suddenly, having a suicide plan, overreacting to criticism, self-imposing isolation from others, being overly self-critical, collecting means or tools to complete suicide, and taking unnecessary risks beyond acceptable safety standards in the fire and emergency medical service.

Emotional warning signs include feeling depressed, hopelessness, helplessness, pessimism about life and the future, restlessness, agitation, and a preoccupation with failures. Warning statements can be direct or indirect. Indirect statements include, “My family would be better off without me,” “I’m tired of life,” or “Take this [belonging]. I won’t need it anymore.” Direct statements include, “I wish I were dead,” “I’m going to end it all” or “I’m going to commit suicide.”

While suicides may not be considered line of duty, we have responded to our locals that have had suicides — when requested by the affiliate leadership. In some of those cases, we have sent counseling experts into those departments to further assist our members after a member suicide. Because of the of the delicate and confidential issues, the IAFF did not, nor will we, publicize these efforts.  However, we do and will continue to address the issue to help prevent these tragedies and provide the counseling needed to overcome a suicide of a member.

Since 1997, the IAFF and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness Fitness Initiative is the recognized and complete fire service medical, physical fitness, behavioral health and wellness program. Since its release, we – along with the IAFC – have continued to address each of the WFI’s components, including the materials on behavioral health.

There are numerous other resources on suicide issues in the United States and Canada:

National (US) Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Canadian Suicide and Crisis Hotlines

Suicide Prevention Resource Center (US)

Centre for Suicide Prevention (Canada)

The National Council For Suicide Prevention

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration