Speaker’s Forum

Helpful Advice for First Responders At Risk for Suicide: The Fire that Burns Within

The Fire That Burns Within

Mary VanHaute, Author

Suicide Prevention in Public Safety:  The Human Dimension

            “Is he OK?” I pleaded with my brother on the other end of the phone after he told me our brother Charlie had jumped from a bridge. “Is he OK?” I demanded when he didn’t reply.

            “He’s dead,” my brother cried.

            So it began like it has for so many survivors of suicide loss. This marked the first day of my long, informal education about the complex world of grief after suicide and the gargantuan task of preventing any one else from entering this world.

            All of my life, I have lived among public servants—firefighters, medics, and police officers.  Those who didn’t pursue these careers found themselves drawn to another helping profession—nursing.  I chose neither.  Following my brother’s suicide, though, I was enlightened as to how my career as an educator and counselor could be melded into the growing field of suicide prevention. His life would not be defined by the way it ended.  He lived to help others, but could not help himself.  What a gift he left me:  a newfound perspective on what it means to help others and a whole new set of tools to use in the process.

            Helping people in helping professions is an arduous task.  For the last ten years, I have accepted the challenge.  It has introduced me to a huge population of at-risk individuals who validate what I believe contributed to my brother’s untreated depression which ultimately lead to his suicide death.  Of the many risk factors for depression and suicide, the two I see most frequently in this population are the incompatibility of courage and being vulnerable and the insatiable desire to help.

            For many public servants, the thought of needing help is a huge threat to their persona.  Becoming vulnerable and admitting they need assistance with some mental mending is perceived as weak, useless, and not courageous.  Things are changing and through education and training, more people are getting the message:  Asking for help is not a sign of weakness but rather a life-saving, courageous step that can enhance your skills on the job.  Yet, it will take a multi-faceted approach to breaking down age-old thinking about the incompatibility of courage and vulnerability. 

            When I’m asked if my brother sought help for his depression, I admit that I don’t know.  Anecdotal information tells me he did, but as I hear from others, it was not an appropriate fit considering his personality and profession.  More needs to be done to bridge those gaps and to educate gatekeepers (front-line personnel) on recognizing signs/symptoms of both depression and suicidal thinking.  Educated, empowered people can make a difference in less acute stages thus minimizing a time when the cry for help is fatal. 

            At my brother’s funeral wake, the fire chaplain for his department spoke words of love and compassion that have sustained me throughout my grief walk.  The most poignant of those words came when he described how my brother died from a fire that burns within rather than from a fire outside his body.  The tyranny of hindsight verifies this statement.  My brother’s life and career was not a proliferation of accolades and achievements.  Rather it was measured by the lives he touched, changed, and ultimately saved.  His insatiable desire to help others not only stoked but also fueled that fire within.  Ultimately, it grew out of control suffocating him and scorching his soul.   

            When I’m asked what (if anything) would have stopped my brother from jumping that beautiful spring morning, I do have an answer.  “Someone needing help.”  I truly believe my brother’s insatiable desire to help was with him even as he felt helplessness.  I believe a stranded motorist on the bridge or even another prospective suicide attempt would have caught his attention activating that innate helping mentality.  No one knows for certain what could have deterred him that day, and I have come to peace knowing he took those answers with him.

            While there are no hard statistics on the number of suicide deaths among the public safety professions, it is widely accepted that more officers, firefighters, medics, and correctional officers die by suicide than die in the line of duty.  The risks they face are far more than what meets the eye of those they serve.  In our suicide prevention efforts, we cannot exclude the unique risks and training needs of this population.  We must value the attributes they bring to the career and help ensure that the fire that burns within does not become deadly. 

About the Author: A suicide prevention educator/trainer, Mary VanHaute has 30 years’ experience in adult education. Her avocation includes years of service to law enforcement related organizations including the coordination of National Police Week ceremonies in Green Bay, WI, where she spearheaded a campaign to build a local tribute to law enforcement. She and her husband Allen, a retired Green Bay police commander, volunteered for both COPS (Concerns of Police Survivors) and the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, DC. Mary was the recipient of the Todd Ricks award from National COPS as volunteer of the year and held the position of support coordinator on the Wisconsin COPS Board. She has been a regular presenter at Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) sessions throughout Wisconsin speaking on the subject “taking care of our own.” She is also experienced in suicide prevention training for EMS and fire personnel.

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