Charlotte firefighters, police address mental health initiatives, combating national suicide numbers

Protecting first responders' mental health

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Low pay, multiple jobs, lack of sleep. The impact of the stress on first responders is not often talked about.

“[It’s]a lot greater than people realize,” Charlotte Fire Battalion Chief Andrew J. Starnes says.

It’s hard for the sights and sounds of the job not to be overwhelming.

“We have to deal with that that most people wouldn’t imagine,” Starnes says.

WBTV pulled numbers from multiple groups, and according to this data, more first responders died by suicide, than on the job. In 2017, the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance says at least 98 firefighters killed themselves, and a similar group Blue Help says the same is true of 159 police officers. According to FEMA, in the same year, 87 firefighters died on the job. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund says the same is true of 129 police officers that year.

Still, the FBHA estimates that only about 40 percent of firefighter suicides, for example, are reported.

“We are at increased risk,” Starnes says. “But the problem we have with that is we don’t have actual data to say for certain, this is the exact risk.”

Charlotte Fire and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department are working to reduce risk that exists.

Charlotte Fire just began a new initiative less than a year ago. Now, in addition to mental health response teams going directly to scenes and following up after what they call “critical incidents,” the department has 30 members trained for this and peer support, and is making outside help more available.

“What we were lacking was a formal structure to offer all those services to our members,” Starnes says.

New at CMPD headquarters in the last few years - an on-site psychologist.

“The question is not for some of them, will I see a dead body today,” Dr. David Englert says. “But, how many, or what condition will those bodies be in.”

Englert works alongside peer support groups and chaplains. He says they not only talk about what they see on the job, but how they’re coping at home.

“Finances and sleep problems and nutrition and exercise,” he says.

Both departments say much of it is about making mental health conversations more of the norm for these groups.

“We’re willing to lay our lives down for someone else, yet when we need help, we don’t want to ask for it,” Starnes says.

“What I don’t want is for them to see me for the first time on their worst day ever,” Englert says.

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