The Charlotte Fire Department joins the US Veterans Hall of Fame and its community partners for the fourth annual mental health awareness run Saturday.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, accounting for nearly 46,000 deaths in 2020. This equates to about one death every 11 minutes. The number of people who think or attempt suicide is even higher. In 2020, an estimated 12.2 million American adults were seriously considering suicide, 3.2 million were planning a suicide attempt, and 1.2 million attempted suicide.
Some groups have higher suicide rates than others. US veterans have higher than average suicide rates. According to the US Veterans Hall of Fame, more than 22 veterans die by suicide every day.
“Often times we lose our veterans fame to mental health crises due to avoidable situations that require only a small investment in their lives.
The mission of the US Veterans Hall of Fame is to publicly pay tribute to men and women from previous military service who embody great character and service, and to collect resources that improve the lives of veterans after the end of their military career.
“If we look at the research, what suggests why the numbers for veterans are so high is that it’s exactly the same reasons that fall on civilians. It’s inadequate housing, not enough pay to work to support a family, and associated trauma with PTSD,” Drafton said.
Drafton believes consistency is essential to veterans’ mental health.
“Veterans, just like everyone else, we need to know who to trust and with that comes consistency,” he said.
According to the CDC, suicide, like other human behaviors, has no single determining cause. Instead, suicide occurs in response to multiple biological, psychological, interpersonal, environmental, and societal influences that often interact over time.
To improve mental well-being within Charlotte Fire, she has developed an internal behavioral health program.
Led by Charlotte Fire Battalion Chief Andrew Starnes, the peer-to-peer support program has had a significant impact on the lives of people in the department.
“Peer-to-peer is someone you can talk to, who understands you and has empathy, not sympathy,” Starnes said. “Our colleagues are someone who can identify with what you’re going through because they have experience in that particular area. Whether it’s a firefighter speaking to a firefighter, an inspector speaking to an inspector, or a dispatcher speaking to a dispatcher, our team is very diverse because we have all different departments on the team.”
In 2018 the peer support team consisted of 20 members. Now the team has over 60. Peer support team members must have two certifications to serve; Critical incident stress management and peer support.
Starnes said that the toughest firefighters have to ask for help. A firefighter’s constant exposure to traumatic events and life-threatening situations, as well as the stress of working long hours away from family members and in high-stakes conditions, can easily build up and take a huge toll on mental health.
With alarms going off all the time at a fire station, firefighters often don’t have time to process one bad experience before they have to face the next.
“Our peer support team has all been through something very difficult and each of them has diverse experiences to share and some have suffered unspeakably,” Starnes said. “But each of them has the guts to go in and listen and say, ‘I know how you feel,’ and mean it.”
Therapy can be a powerful tool to restore or maintain mental health. Discussing difficult experiences and emotions with a trained therapist can be difficult, but not processing them can make those experiences and emotions last longer.
In addition to the peer-to-peer support team, Charlotte Fire employees have a variety of behavioral health resources available to them. From the Employee Assistance Program, which offers confidential and free services, to the North Carolina Firefighter Peer Support Network and more, promoting healthy mental well-being is Charlotte Fire Chief Reginald Johnson’s top priority.
“We want conversations about mental health to be embedded in Charlotte Fire’s culture,” Johnson said. “Although a firefighter’s role is to help others, it comes with intense physical and mental demands and it’s important to take time to recover and re-energize.”
Johnson prioritizes mental health to incorporate mental health and well-being, suicide prevention and anti-stigma efforts into the department’s staff health strategy.
“Our support team is committed to fighting stigma and creating a culture of acceptance and support around mental health,” Johnson said. “We view asking for help as a sign of strength, not weakness, and we want our employees to have the tools they need to thrive mentally, physically and professionally by fostering a culture of awareness, acceptance and encourage support.”
Suicide is preventable and everyone has a role to play in saving lives and creating healthy and strong individuals, families and communities.
The US Veterans Hall of Fame Walk to Fight Suicide will be held on August 6 in Uptown Charlotte at Romare Bearden Park from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Learn more about the Walk.
Call 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline if you have a mental health issue or are concerned about a loved one who may need support during a crisis.