CBS 58 Investigates: First responders battling invisible enemy

CBS 58 Investigates: First responders battling invisible enemy

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WISCONSIN (CBS 58) -- Whether it’s a burning building or an active shooter, first responders run toward the danger, not away from it. But some may be ignoring a potentially deadly threat.

Yearly firefighter and police officer suicide rates often rival line of duty deaths. A new survey shared exclusively with CBS 58 Investigates sheds light on the mental wellbeing of first responders in Wisconsin. 

In partnership with Rogers Behavioral Health, the Fire Fighters Foundation developed a 32-question survey which was made accessible to all professional and volunteer fire and EMS professionals across the state of Wisconsin from Dec. 4, 2020 to Jan. 8, 2021.

Among the 777 respondents across the state: 

  • 93.4% say they had a traumatic incident on the job
  • 51.8% sleep problems
  • 34.2% family/relationship problems
  • 16.3% reported substance abuse
  • 9.6% had thoughts of suicide or self-harm

Doctor Kelly Piacsek is vice president of research for Rogers Behavioral Health, she says the results of this survey could open up new strategies.

“The questions about suicidal ideation and self-harm are definitely ones that we need to do more work on,” she said.  

Milwaukee Fire Department Lieutenant Brent Jones understands why the job is stressful and potentially damaging to someone’s mental health. Jones says it’s hard to be at your best, when every day you see people at their worst.

“You go from one call where a child was shot and then come back to the firehouse, and next thing you know we’re on a car that's rolled over and somebody's trapped in it,” he said. 

Lt. Jones says seeing that level of human suffering almost daily could wear down anyone, and he found ways to cope.

“I'm not one that ever sat and drank at home, but when I would go out I would drink to forget,” he said. Eventually it got so bad that Jones thought about doing the unthinkable.

“I would open the drawer of the nightstand and my bed and I would look at the pistol that I had sitting there and then it got to the point where I was putting it to my head,” he said. 

There is a push to get first responders the help they need before it becomes an emergency. In late April, Governor Evers signed a bipartisan bill that will allow public safety officers diagnosed with PTSD to get worker’s compensation benefits.  

Culture may still be an obstacle in the way of improved mental health. Many first responders don’t want to ask for help, Jones says it has been that way for decades.

“Twenty-one years ago, when I came on, you sucked it up or someone said ‘sorry maybe this job isn’t for you.’”  According to the results of the survey, that attitude still lingers today. 287 firefighters, or nearly 37%, answered that they agree with the statement that "most firefighters think getting treatment is a sign of weakness.”

Allison Lancione, clinical supervisor with Rogers Behavioral Health, says reaching out to a trusted co-worker makes asking for help easier.

“What we know about working with firefighters is that the peer support network is one of the most effective ways to help firefighters."

Jones calls the Milwaukee Fire Department peer support program “one of the best in the nation,” and the challenge is to bring that peer support and peer acceptance across the state and across the country. Jones thinks being able to talk to a trusted colleague will save lives, because it might have saved his.

“Telling one of my peer support people -- that was a third time that I put my gun to my head with my finger on the trigger -- they said okay, it's time for you to get help.” 

Mike Wos, executive director of the Professional Fire Fighters of WI Charitable Foundation, says they plan to put this survey out every year so it can guide their mental health strategy moving forward.

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