Let’s talk, not about leadership, but about a critical issue requiring leadership. Specifically, I ‘m speaking of the epidemic of wildland firefighter suicide that is happening right before our eyes. I was aware of the prevalence of suicide in the fire service but had considered it primarily a problem of municipal fire and emergency medical services. I was aware that suicide visited our wildland firefighter ranks; and had even experienced such a loss. However, I’ll admit that, until fairly recently, I misunderstood the scale of the problem we confront. Reliable statistics on wildland firefighter suicide elude us, but it seems we average around 25-30 known suicides among our brother and sister wildland firefighters each year, though suicides are likely underreported in wildland fire just as they are in the fire service as a whole, law enforcement, and the military.
While 25-30 suicides each year may not sound like an epidemic as I describe it, our rate is much higher than society as a whole. A similar rate of suicide in the greater society would mean that nearly one-half million Americans would take their own lives each year; more than ten times the actual rate. If 25-30 firefighters died from snag related incidents or burnovers every year, we’d be having a full-on, collective, risk management freak-out. Think about this for a moment; it is possible that more wildland firefighters took their own life this year than died from all causes of tracked line-of-duty deaths combined.
We don’t really understand the breadth or depth of the problem. Not only has no one been systematically counting; but we suffer the same stigma over suicide that exists both in other high-risk services and across our society. My experience is that people don’t want to talk about suicide, I know I haven’t. The reasons are myriad – we hope that people won’t harm themselves; we fear that if we talk about suicide we encourage suicide; we don’t believe that we can intervene successfully; we have unfortunate attitudes about peoples’ mental illness including PTSD; and we are unwilling to talk about the role of common elements of the firefighter lifestyle, including a myriad of stressors including:
- high stress,
- physical and mental exhaustion,
- low pay and seasonal work,
- a lack of benefits and career prospects,
- time away from home and trouble re-connecting with family,
- inconsistent health care,
- a masculine culture,
- and alcohol abuse.
I have known hundreds, if not thousands, of firefighters — and at the risk of understatement, most firefighters don’t seem likely to willingly talk about an intensely personal and emotional topic like mental health.
However, we can remain reluctant and silent no longer; because the experts suggest that reluctance and silence at all levels of the wildland fire service are likely preventing, or at least discouraging, wildland firefighters from reaching out to mental health services when they are in trouble. For a number of years now, we’ve been acknowledging that for many reasons we are experiencing a significant occurrence of PTSD among wildland firefighters. I am reminded of a story that a colleague told me several years ago. My friend had brought a colleague, with a mental health background, along to observe a staff ride. The visitor, who had no previous experience with the wildland fire community, casually observed that there were a lot of emotionally wounded people walking around in the wildland fire service. A quick search for “wildland firefighter PTSD” reveals a few interesting articles on the phenomenon. I hear people talking about PTSD and firefighter mental health at national conferences, including the immeasurably courageous Kim Lightley. Unfortunately, more often than not, when I read something or hear a talk about PTSD and wildland firefighters it includes impotent admissions that, like our nations soldiers, our wildland firefighters resist accessing mental health counseling and that, too often, won’t talk about mental health – their own or others’.
Having a keen grasp of the obvious, I know that wildland firefighters can be a hard-drinking, and binge-drinking, crowd. However, try searching for “wildland firefighter alcohol abuse” – you won’t find much – though alcoholism in the broader fire service is a well-known, and much-discussed problem. It’s the collision of these topics that increasingly concerns me. We acknowledge that our people are increasingly experiencing PTSD, both acute and cumulative. We feebly admit that our personnel resist accessing mental health counseling and observe that our folks with PTSD often self-medicate with alcohol instead. Talk about something we don’t want to talk about! Just as it is in the fire service as a whole, uncommon drinking is supported by the social norms of our community. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a cold one as much as anyone; and enjoy it best when I’m across the table from someone with whom I share the bond of fire. However, here’s the deal: alcohol and suicide are partners. One third of all suicides in this country involve alcohol and an adult alcoholic is 120 times more likely to commit suicide than a non-alcoholic. There are lots of possible reasons for both those statistics, but bottom line, alcohol is the most common factor in suicide.
It’s pretty clear that, until leaders, at all organizational levels of fire agencies, open a workplace dialogue about mental health and model the idea that talking about mental health and coping with mental health issues is similar to talking about other injury or disease, we’ll remain locked in the pattern we are in. I’ll close up with a few suggestions for courageous leaders:
- Open a dialogue – it’s the first step. There will be no progress until we start talking
- Model the idea that talking mental health is similar to talking about injury or disease
- Acknowledge the exposure to mental health risk factors that firefighters face
- Teach people about suicide warning signs and what to do when they spot them
- Teach people how to watch out for one another
- Know your people well enough to know when their behavior changes
- Provide social support and peer support, but recognize that peer support may not be enough
- Provide fire personnel with ready access to relevant mental health professionals
- Teach people resilience, model resilience, expect resilience as a performance metric
Don’t fail to act on this problem because you can’t be fancy. We have access to free resources that can form the foundation of an excellent DIY team discussion and brainstorming session at any organizational level. The Spring 2017 edition of Two More Chains (http://www.wildfirelessons.net/viewdocument/two-more-chains-spring-2017-1) includes both some excellent content and an extensive list of helpful references and resources. In addition, both the Wildland Firefighter Foundation Family Outreach Recovery Programs (https://wffoundation.org/outreach/) and the Wildland Fire and Aviation Critical Incident Management Website (https;//gacc.nifc.gov/cism/suicide.html) have some good resources.
Mike DeGrosky is Chief of the Fire and Aviation Management Bureau for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Division of Forestry. He taught for the Department of Leadership Studies at Fort Hays State University for 10 years. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.