These are all examples of “the brotherhood.” But what happens when one of our own breaks their soul? We cannot see the outward evidence of injury and are therefore suspicious of its legitimacy. Even in our capacity to look beyond that initial skepticism, we find ourselves painfully unprepared to engage on this issue because we simply do not know what to say and because it reveals the potential for us to fall victim to the same dreaded affliction (if it can happen to them, it can happen to me).
Addressing Despair and Desperation
Although my department is as susceptible as any for suffering a line-of-duty death, we are actually three times more likely to experience the death of a member through suicide. And hindsight is always translucent. Invariably, after the immediate shock has worn off, our conversations include statements like, “I knew he was struggling,” “She seemed more distant than usual,” and “He never did get over that call.” We knew.
Sometimes, suicide does take us by surprise (“I never in a million years would have thought he would take his own life—never”), leaving us all the more lost, struggling to understand when the only person who can explain the incomprehensible is not around anymore to answer the question that consumes our thoughts: Why?
Being our brother’s keeper means doing whatever it takes—period. We have an obligation to care so much, to love our fellow responders so much, that we are willing to look our brother or sister in the eye and have a courageous conversation about what we see. Experts tell us that suicide is the intersection of three circumstances: a thwarted sense of belonging (being ostracized or alone), a perceived burdensomeness, and the capability to actually end our own life. Often, firefighters, paramedics, and emergency medical technicians lose so much perspective on life that they come to believe that the only way to end their pain is through their own death, and they justify their actions internally by thinking, however mistakenly, that those around them would be better off without them. Perception is reality to the person who is carrying the weight of despair and desperation.
Make the Effort
We must ACT1: Ask about intent or ideation, Care for your brother or sister at risk, and Take them to professional help. Asking the question, “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” takes tremendous courage. Frequently, a member in trouble may realize that he needs help but cannot bring himself to make the call himself. He simply cannot pick up the phone. Pick it up for him. Identify that you are calling for someone else and then hand the phone over.
If you ask someone if he is willing to seek help and he says no, SAY SOMETHING. Tell someone else so they can help. At what point does a brother’s private life warrant walking away from him when he is in crisis? Never. We spend more than a third of our lives with our fellow responders. We are present in each other’s lives and are more than willing to offer advice about anything (since we are experts in everything). Sometimes, the mere fact that we are paying attention is enough to cause others to reconsider their plan and come in out of the darkness.
Our words can make a difference, but only if they are matched with action. First, emphasize how much we care and are willing to do; second, remind the person that he has worth, that the world is a better place because he is in it—right now; third, tell him that no matter how bad a situation is, there is a capacity to get beyond it. The road may be hard, but no one has to travel it alone—not in this family.
Here are resources that can help. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255), National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Life Safety Initiative 13 Web resources: www.everyonegoeshome.com/16-initiatives.
1. Everyone Goes Home, Life Safety Initiative 13, Psychological Support, www.everyonegoeshome.com/16-initiatives/13-psychological-support.