MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - It’s a problem often hidden from the public: suicide among firefighters, police officers and EMS professionals. Shift after shift, these men and women spend their career putting themselves in harm’s way, facing death on a day-to-day basis.
A recent study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that last year, more firefighters and police officers in the United States died by suicide than while in the line of duty. The alarming statistics are now shedding light on the impact these jobs have on mental health. The report shows at least 103 firefighters and 140 police officers took their own lives. But experts believe the number of suicides could actually be significantly larger due to a lack of reporting. First responders witness worst case scenarios on a regular basis. But no scene is ever the same, and everyone responds to distress differently. Eventually, those things begin to add up. The study also shows out of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States, approximately three to five percent have suicide prevention training programs.
Mental health experts say the support often starts with education, providing people with the skills they need to identify and discuss their challenges. The Lowcountry Firefighter Support Team based out of Charleston offers support to first responders and help can be as easy as a phone call away.
“The Lowcountry is grown to service everybody along the 95 corridors east of 95. So, we’re more regional, and those resources are available to firefighters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week both in peer contacts as well as we have therapists available, psychiatrists you name it, we have it. So, they can get all kinds of therapy now with a phone call, simple phone call to myself or any person on the team. After meeting with them, we can easily get them involved with any person we know that they need care for and get involved with them that way,” said Michael Medeiros, Grand Strand coordinator for Lowcountry Firefighter Support Team.
The Lowcountry Firefighter Support Team is now making efforts to work with our local departments along the Grand Strong to offer peer support classes.
It’s well-known that being a firefighter or a first responder is physically demanding, but they are also mentally and emotionally taxing.
“When they come into this type of business, there’s a lot to be seen that they’re not really ready for. You can teach them all you want in recruit schools, you can take them to EMT schools and paramedic schools and teach them everything that they want to know. But once they get out on the street, it’s a whole different ball game," said Medeiros. They spend their career surrounded by death and destruction. Oftentimes, those events lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder."
“Naturally, in our line of work, when it comes to us getting the help that we need, that tends to be where we slack off and we lack because we don’t know how to ask for help because we’re always the ones that’s giving help if that makes sense,” said Blake Stinnett, owner and director of Next Rung.
That’s why efforts are being made to provide more resources and support. “EMS, fire, police, even 911 dispatchers, there is a stigma. You don’t want to show weakness. And that’s one thing that Lowcountry has been pushing very strongly. It’s actually you’re stronger to reach for help, to ask for help," said Medeiros.
Medeiros also served 17 years with Horry County Fire Rescue and has seen first-hand how this career can take a toll on your mental health.
"A lot of unknown traumas have happened over the years. Some that few people know about, the suicides and what not and some that have actually been stopped along the way that we don’t publicize. So very important to us to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said Medeiros.
He says it’s time to break down the walls and talk about these issues openly.
“Firefighters have that care before that ever gets to that point. It’s hard to talk about things but if we know about the signs and symptoms, we see what is happening with that individual, then we can mitigate it before that even happens, you know get them the care that they need. Especially here in Horry County, Surfside, Myrtle Beach all this area here, we do see a lot of trauma, a lot of unique calls and it does take its toll,” said Medeiros.
The organization provides peer support to first responders and family members access to professional resources, and stresses conversation is key.
“It’s hard for first responders like ourselves to sit back and eat the silence while you speak, and you're going to let things out. and that's one thing folks have been so thankful for is the ability to be able to let it all out without any judgement without anybody stopping them and saying I know what you mean and then going on from there and interjecting. That type of conversation is just something they didn't even realize they needed,” said Medeiros.
There are also national, non-profit organizations that offer peer support and helps provide individualized arrangements for professional help like Next Rung.