NEWS9 Special Assignment: Who’s helping the helpers?
Suicide has claimed the lives of more officers and firefighters last year than all line-of-duty deaths combined, begging the question: who's helping the helpers?
"We have a tough job,” said Lt. James Faunda of the Ohio State Highway Patrol. “In today's world, it seems like society's against us most of the time."
Last year, according to the Ruderman Family Foundation, 140 police officers committed suicide, whereas 129 officers died in the line of duty.
One-hundred and three firefighters took their own lives last year, but firefighter suicides could be more than double the 93 line-of-duty deaths, simply because they were unreported.
While deaths in the line of duty are widely published, there is secrecy, and stigma, surrounding suicide.
"It’s definitely a problem that we need to talk about, even if we're reluctant to do that,” Faunda said.
There’s a program called "Ohio Assist," which remains largely off the radar for first responders who are struggling after experiencing a traumatic event.
"The best way I can describe a traumatic event, or critical incident, is the word ‘yes.’ I say that because if it's traumatic, if its critical to you, whether it is to anyone else is irrelevant,” said Lt. Steven Click of Ohio Assist.
For Click, the stigma behind getting help is all too familiar.
"We would almost rather do our own dental surgery than admit to our co-workers that we're going to see somebody,” he said. "There’s an attempt by the departments not to stigmatize it, but it's still there. Not just in law enforcement, not just in public safety, but in society.”
Ohio Assist doesn't discriminate against the color of your uniform. It's offered, free of charge, to all personnel in first responder services.
Police, fire, EMS, corrections and anyone employed by such agencies, from secretaries to dispatchers.
The three-day program provides counseling, peer support and education.
And unlike its preceding programs, Click says Ohio Assist comes in after the dust settles from a traumatic event.
"We come in 4 months, 6 months, down the road and we provide them the opportunity to tell the story what happened,” Click said. “Not as part of testimony, not as part of an official investigation, but just tell your story.”
After a critical incident, Click has found that first responders aren't suffering alone.
"Give me 10 minutes and a computer, and I'll find 10 other people somewhere in the country who've experienced exactly what you went through, including the aftermath,” Click said. “You're not as alone as you think you are.”
With a growing list of first responder suicides, it's time to break the silence, start the conversation and give this nationwide problem the urgent attention it deserves.
"What I can guarantee is this: if you don't talk to someone you trust and has your back, your best interests completely at heart, if you don't share that, it will not get better and it will almost always get worse," Click said.
West Virginia is working to create a post-critical incident program of its own.
While it’s not yet up and running, Click says Ohio Assist would not turn anyone away simply because they're out of state.
For more information on Ohio Assist, click here.