Firefighter opens up about mental health struggle on National Suicide Prevention Week

Published: Sep. 12, 2018 at 9:26 PM CDT
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In 2017, more first responders died by suicide than in the line of duty. That's according to a study done by the Ruderman Family Foundation.

Here in Lincoln, Fire and Rescue says it's actively working to end the stigma surrounding mental health.

Brent Jones, a firefighter paramedic with LFR, said he saw five of his friends and colleagues in fire and rescue commit suicide in the last five years. After coming to terms with his own struggle, he got the help he said he desperately needed.

A study by the Journal of Emergency Medical Services said first responders attempt suicide at a rate 10 times that of the general public.

"I didn't ever think about ending my own life, but I thought if I were to perish in a fire that I would be better off because I would be in a better place mentally," Jones said.

He said a tweet changed his life.

"The International Association of Firefighters opened a treatment center for mental health in Maryland called the Center of Excellence," Jones said. "It just happened I got a tweet about it and I was having a day. And it just dawned on me that maybe I should get some help."

He became the center's first patient. He sought treatment for PTSD associated with being a first responder. He had been doing the job for nearly 15 years.

"This is a job I've always wanted to do my entire life, since I was 3, and it was disheartening to me that the job that I loved so much was killing me," Jones said.

He said the tools he learned in Maryland help him cope with everything, from job stress to everyday life. He spends a lot of time in the gym as a way to clear his head.

"I don't compartmentalize anymore," Jones said. "I've learned it's okay to cry, it's okay to be upset. You have to address those and you have to face it. You can't bottle it up or put it away."

Initially, when he sought treatment, Jones said he was worried about coworker reactions.

"I think the old adage in the fire service world is, 'Suck it up. This is our job,'" Jones said. "I was like, 'What will my coworkers think of me?' And I didn't really want anyone to know I was seeking help."

But now, Jones said he's glad he opened up to his team. He said it has made LFR stronger and more open to talking about their struggle.

"I'm no expert, but I've been there," Jones said. "I've had several firefighters tell me they're struggling. They want to talk now. I just don't want to see anyone get to where they think there's no other option."

Jones said he has seen the atmosphere at LFR transform in the past few years.

"If I had to go get help in this climate, I wouldn't feel uncomfortable," Jones said. "I would say, 'Hey, I'm getting help. I don't want to be a statistic."

LFR now requires all firefighters and paramedics to attend mental health training.