From the Chief's Corner

Suicide in Public Safety: We're Not Helpless!
By Chief Sam DiGiovanna
Verdugo Fire Academy/Lexipol Consultant

Editor's note: If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

By now you're probably aware that September is Suicide Prevention Month. Hopefully your department leaders spent some time discussing the issue of suicide in public safety and our responsibility to provide resources to help personnel develop resilience. Maybe you also shared information with your community through your department's website or social media.

These important messages bear repeating. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates in the U.S. rose 33% from 1999 to 2017. Nearly 45,000 lives were lost to suicide in 2016 alone.

Yet these numbers often obscure the complexity of the issue. Lexipol co-founder Gordon Graham often speaks about proximate causes and root causes of tragedy in public safety. Too often, he says, we tend to focus on the proximate cause: The fire apparatus was involved in a collision because the driver failed to stop at a red light. Gordon stresses that to prevent such tragedies from happening, we must seek the root cause: Was there a lack of policy about stopping at red lights? Was training inadequate? Did the captain fail to properly supervise his or her crew?

I think we can all agree suicide is a tragedy, so the same process applies here. When someone in public safety dies by suicide, our natural tendency is to look for what may have "caused it" — divorce? A really tough call or series of traumatic incidents? Loss of a loved one? These questions, while well-intentioned, may be misguided. Instead, we should be focused on the root causes of suicide. For instance, the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention reports that mental illness and/or substance abuse are found in 90% of people who have died by suicide.

Further, focusing on the what or whys around a specific death by suicide misses the opportunity to engage our members in conversations about the potential for people to recover from depression, PTSD and suicidal ideation. Having suicidal thoughts does not mean someone is weak or flawed — and it does not mean the person will wind up killing themselves. We need to bring more positive, honest stories of hope, recovery and healing to our discussions so that our members are empowered to seek help.

It's common to feel helpless after someone dies by suicide, either because we "saw it coming" but didn't know what to do or because we didn't see it at all. That's why it's important to train ourselves to recognize and act when we see warning signs. Suicide prevention experts agree that most, but not all, people who die by suicide exhibit warning signs, including:
  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings
As the Action Alliance states, the more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide:
  • Do not leave the person alone
  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional
While we can't change the fact that someone has taken their own life, we can change the conversation around the tragedy in an attempt to prevent another person from doing the same. We can spread the message that while feeling occasional anxiety and depression is normal, dying by suicide is not. Mental wellness and resiliency are possible, and we can help our brothers and sisters.

For all you chiefs out there, look into the Cordico Fire app. This service creates a comprehensive set of wellness resources customized for your department, including 24/7 confidential support for your firefighters.

Sam DiGiovanna is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif. He also is a consultant for Lexipol Fire Services.