Typically we are the ones out there doing the “saving” and never stop to think, realize or talk about the fact that, often times; it’s actually us who needs the saving.
The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (link) reports that in 2014 there were 104 firefighter deaths by suicide. That number is higher than (and not included in) the Line Of Duty Deaths. This year, 53 Firefighter suicides have already been reported.
It’s beyond sad and breaks my heart. Every Line Of Duty Death is studied inside and out. Reports are written, recommendations made, policies and procedures changed etc. yet, until recently; very little has been done concerning Firefighter mental health and suicide.
The Fire Critic and I recently gave a short presentation on this topic during Flame Fest 2015 (hosted by Firefighterwife.com). In that talk, I was shocked to learn that very few of the firefighters in attendance knew what #1 of the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives was. If you don’t know, it’s “Cultural Change”. They also didn’t know what #13 on the list was …. “Psychological Support”. You can learn more about and find all 16 Initiatives HERE .
OUR TOP LEADERS …the best of the best … the who’s who of the Fire Service and the #1 Initiative they all agreed on was that we need a “Cultural Change”. Well, they couldn’t have been more right and they confirmed that again in 2014 during Tampa II.
So allow me to put Initiatives #1 and #13 together. As an “old school” firefighter, I never talked about emotional or mental health. Nobody ever told me not to but it was a given. It was the “culture” I came up in.
As firefighters (and First Responders), we see and do things on a daily basis that most people never will (and shouldn’t have to). We see and do these things without hesitation yet there was no way we could have known or been prepared for the life we were about to devote and expose ourselves to.
Until I came on the job, I had never seen a dead body much less one mangled in a car crash or burnt in a fire. I’d never known the smell of burnt flesh or large pools of blood. I’d never been exposed to gunshot / stabbing victims, performed CPR on a child or any of the many other things I’ve seen and done over the course of 27 years.
It all affected me but we didn’t talk about it… not to my Brothers at the station and certainly not to anyone at home. Again, it was the “culture” I came up in. Maybe someone would make a small joke to ease the tension and then you just filed it away somewhere in the back of your mind. You sucked it up, got back on the rig and took in the next run.
Most of you know my story and the bottom line is that about 2 years ago, it all caught up to me. That “mental filing cabinet” of mine opened up and everything I had filed away got dumped out. Grief, Depression and PTSD consumed my life…. it still does. At times, it was almost debilitating…. it was certainly embarrassing and humbling.
For all these years now I’ve never talked about it. Many of us who have quietly suffered haven’t. For all these years we’ve never had anyone to tell it to or someone who would listen and understand. Not the Brother or Sister next to us…. ego and our culture wouldn’t allow it and there was no way I was putting any of this on my wife or family. So I filed it.
All to often, that path of holding it in leads to destruction. Excessive drinking, substance abuse, spousal abuse, divorce etc. A path to depression, PTSD, addiction and even suicide.
During my breakdown, I voluntarily (at the urging of friends and family) entered a local treatment facility…. it didn’t work.
I was in a facility with the “general population” … folks who the courts ordered in. Street dealers, addicts etc. The Doctors (staff) didn’t couldn’t relate with / to me…. they didn’t know or understand what I do… what I have done, seen etc. It was difficult for me to open up with them because I had to try to explain every little detail so that they would understand.
Well, finally we now have a place to go …. a place of our own! I want to share with and tell you a little about Station House Retreat (link).
Station House Retreat is a facility located in Boynton Beach, Fl. and it is EXCLUSIVELY for First Responders (Fire, EMS, Police and Corrections Officers)!
Station House Retreat opened it’s doors on February 2, 2015 and has treated 12 members to date. Residents come from places such as Cal Fire, FDNY, NYPD, Alabama, Detroit, Long Island, Georgia and everywhere in between.
Residents have described a welcoming feeling / experience that they haven’t found at any other facility. One described it as “a presence when you walk through the door”. At least 5 of the first residents requested longer stays and continued treatment. I tried to escape / break out of the facility I entered so Station House must be doing something right! LOL
“The Station House Retreat first responder program is designed to address the complex substance abuse and mental health issues unique to emergency services professionals.”
From their web site… “The Station House Retreat is an innovative treatment center dedicated to helping first responders around the country heal and recover. We provide those in need with the tools in treatment to do their jobs without life altering consequences and to take care of them, heal them, and make them well again so that they may return to help and heal others as the proud, brave and dedicated first responders that they are.”
Their National Outreach Coordinator (and co-founder), Don Prince Sr. is a former Chief and member of the Brookhaven Fire Department in Long Island, NY. Because he is one, Don understands firefighters and “speaks our language”.
Station House Retreat also has a Peer Support Team on site at the facility. This team is composed of former First Responders who also understands / relates to firefighters and are able to work closely with the residents while staying at the Station House. It’s a very unique facility that was built just for us!
Station House Retreat was created by Don Prince and Peggy Sweeney (Grieving Behind The Badge and The Sweeney Alliance) from their many years of experience and knowledge of the need for such a facility. Station House Retreat exists because Don, Peggy and their entire team cares. It exists because they care and because our (First Responders) lives matter!
Station House Retreat is a For-Profit facility created in part by the support of investors and believe me, these folks invested in a lot more than just bricks and mortar.
The length of stay varies from person to person depending on their situation. A 28 day visit, including food, housing, medication and treatment will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $18,000.
Don and his team work with each resident and their insurance company to assure most costs are covered and pre-approved.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work. Insurance companies vary and many of our Brothers and Sisters may not even have insurance. Peggy and I were talking about it and both agree that money shouldn’t stand in the way of First Responders getting the help they need. I wish I could afford to send everyone needing to go and she wishes they could provide the services for free.
I don’t know how yet but I do know I’m going to help. Somehow, we will start a fund to help residents / visitors of Station House Retreat with covering the cost of travel (air fare), co-pays etc. (things insurance may not cover).
Again, I’m not sure how I’m going to do it yet (solicit donations, sell sponsorship, advertising, merchandise etc) but we do have a registered 501-C3 non-profit to run it through. If you have any new and innovative ideas or if this is something your business / company would want to support please leave a comment or message me personally.
I refer a lot of Brothers and Sisters to Don, Peggy and The Station House. I get calls regarding mental health issues daily. Someone was asked just the other day (speaking of Station House Retreat) “why would you want to go to a place like that?” The reply?…. “because I don’t think I’ll make it if I don’t”.
These lives matter and without the proper help / treatment centers like this, they very well may end too soon. What are YOU doing to change the culture of Mental Health awareness / issues in YOUR firehouse? Tomorrow may be too late to start making the change….
Stay Safe and in House!