Group aims to reduce suicides among first responders

The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance teaches people to recognize the signs that might indicate a person is contemplating suicide

By Lauren Stephenson
Dayton Daily News

DAYTON, Ohio — One of the first responders on scene at the San Bernardino terrorist attack — where 14 people were killed and dozens more wounded — called what he saw "unspeakable."

Oftentimes, those experiences can haunt first responders, but those who help others might not seek help in coping with tragedy themselves.

In 2015, 106 first responders have committed suicide, according to Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA), a nonprofit that calls itself the only organization that tracks suicides among firefighters and EMS personnel.

"We estimate that we’re only getting 30 percent of the reporting, so we figure each year that’s there anywhere from 350 to 400 fire and EMT suicides," said Lt. Jerry Meddock Jr., Midwest ambassador and instructor for FBHA, which educates firefighters and EMS personnel across the country on behavioral health issues and suicide awareness through prevention workshops.

Meddock serves as chaplain for the Bethel Twp. Fire Department in Clark County and also serves on the New Carlisle Fire Department.

"The hard thing for heroes is to admit that sometimes they need a hero, too," said Mindibeth Wynne, a first responder and board-certified crisis intervention specialist.

Wynne said her childhood friend who served with her at Box 21 Rescue Squad in Dayton was one of those heroes.

"He always felt like he was facing his medical challenges alone. He wasn’t one to really open up and talk about things," she said.

Wynne told this paper she told her friend he could talk to her when he was ready.

"He wasn’t ready," she said.

Wynne and Meddock, who also knew the friend, said the veteran EMT committed suicide in 2012.

"It can be tougher than a line-of-duty death," Meddock said. "Obviously, we didn’t want to lose any of our brothers or sisters in a line of duty death, but when that happens, we can come up with the answers of why it happened a little more quickly than if we lose them to suicide."

Meddock, himself, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after coming forward and seeking help. He has made it his mission to teach people the signs that someone is struggling.

"If you’re starting to have sleep deprivation or you’re starting to have nightmares, or you’re just envisioning things or triggers that bring you back to that particular scene that you had trouble with, those are some of the signs to look for," he said.

"Isolation is a big one. If you start to notice someone that is isolating them self that normally is very social and active with you," Meddock explained.

Change in personality, in general, is something to look for.

"Sometimes when people are thinking about or contemplating suicide, they may become very happy and they may not always have been the happiest person," he said. "But then you start to notice that they’re really happy, and sometimes that means that they’ve already made their plan, and they think they’re going to get out of a lot of the struggles that they’ve been dealing with."

FBHA encourages people who do notice those signs to "challenge with compassion."

"Show them that you care," Meddock said. "Don’t be afraid to ask them if something’s going on, and if they do say (so), you know, be there beside them through the whole way to take whatever steps that need to be taken to lead them to treatment."

FBHA, which was founded in 2011 by a retired Illinois fire captain, wants to eventually get into fire and EMS academies to train the next generation of first responders.

"Everything’s about what you need to do, strategies and tactics to take care of other people, but there really is very little about taking care of yourself," Meddock said.

He said he hopes the efforts of FBHA and first responders who have come forward with their own stories will reduce suicide, especially among first responders.

"There’s a macho mentality that a lot of people think that they have to have, and they feel that when they do reach out for help that it’s a sign of weakness," he said. "…. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s actually a sign of bravery and courage."

(c)2015 the Dayton Daily News

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