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Wisconsin initiative focuses on firefighters' mental health

GREENFIELD, Wis.,—A new collaboration is taking shape in Wisconsin to connect firefighters to mental health resources.

The Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association has created a task force on mental health to ensure support services are available to fire departments statewide. Association President Jon Cohn, fire chief in Greenfield, Wis., said they're using existing resources in the interim while they build a network of peer counselors, who will be trained in talking with firefighters who need help and also to recognize when a firefighter needs a mental health professional to step in.

They plan to begin a helpline for Wisconsin firefighters to call, but until that's operational, firefighters can contact Cohn at (414) 301-2646.

Cohn said he wanted to focus on firefighters' mental health when he became president of the Wisconsin fire chiefs association eight months ago, and the association has been working at it since. In the weeks following Superior Fire Battalion Chief Erik Sutton's suicide, Cohn said he has seen an increase in awareness about firefighters' mental health and has had firefighters, many of whom have a personal connection with a family member or fellow firefighter struggling with mental health issues, come forward to become trained peer counselors.

A 2014 National Fallen Firefighters Foundation report states that a fire department is three times more likely to have a suicide than a line-of-duty death in any given year. In Minnesota, where firefighters are twice as likely as people in the general population to take their own lives, the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative was created to improve firefighters' physical and mental health.

When firefighters die by suicide, the common phrase that's said is "they died unexpectedly," instead of fully disclosing the manner of the person's death, Cohn said.

"If we're going to raise this level of awareness and support, we need to be more transparent and we can't keep saying they died unexpectedly when they committed suicide," Cohn said.

He commended Superior Mayor Jim Paine and Sutton's family for telling the public that Sutton died by suicide last month. Sutton, 46, had served on the Superior Fire Department for 20 years and died April 18 after "a long and brave struggle" with mental illness, Paine wrote in an announcement of Sutton's death. Sutton had sought and received care prior to his death.

"We will put his memory to work for our bravest civil servants as diligently as he put his own life to work for all of us, and commit ourselves to ensuring that every firefighter and police officer in our service not only has full access to the care that they need, but that they feel the support to seek care when necessary," Paine wrote.

Sutton's death has started a conversation in Wisconsin about firefighters' mental health, Cohn said. As awareness grows, the Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association will continue to let people know there's help, connect them with resources and train more firefighters as peer counselors, he said. They want a diverse team so firefighters can be matched with a peer they feel comfortable talking to, he explained.

The firefighters' union has mental health resources available, but about 80 percent of Wisconsin firefighters aren't union members. Firefighters also may not work in a department that has easy access to mental health services, Cohn said.

"There's no greater asset than our people, and I know that part of the responsibility of the Wisconsin chiefs is that we represent from the Milwaukee Fire Department on down to very small volunteer organizations," Cohn said.

It may not be one bad fire call that affects a firefighter's mental health — it could be issues going on both at home and work that the firefighter is juggling, Cohn said.

"We're all bringing stress to the table. It might be at-home stress, family, marriage, financial, time, but when you start to add in the stressors of going on these traumatic calls or maybe something on the call that didn't go completely right, that's where it can tend to have a compounding effect," Cohn said.

To get help

  • Minnesota Firefighter Initiative's 24-hour helpline: (888) 784-6634
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255
  • Crisis Text Line: Text MN to 741741
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