To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call the new 988 three-digit hotline or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Suicide prevention services can also be reached at 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255).
The Bangor Fire Department buried Jacob Madden, a young firefighter who joined the department in 2021, on Monday after he died by suicide on April 22.
Madden’s death is a local example of the high-risk first responders have of dying by suicide and struggling with mental health issues due to their profession each year, said Jared Willey, a Bangor firefighter, president of Local 772 of the International Association of Firefighters.
While Madden, 31, is the first Bangor firefighter to die by suicide in recent memory, the region isn’t immune to the issue, Willey said. Levant firefighter Isaac Greenlaw died by suicide in 2018, sending shockwaves through the bedroom community.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that law enforcement officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, and EMS providers are 1.4 times more likely to die by suicide than the general public.
“Dying in a building fire is not what we have to worry about, but that’s what we spend all our time training to prevent,” Willey said. “Nobody is paying attention to what’s actually killing us, and that’s suicide and cancer.”
Cancer is a leading cause of death among firefighters, the CDC reported. Firefighters are also exposed to hundreds of different chemicals in the form of gases, vapors and particulates, some of which are known or suspected to cause cancer, according to the health organization.
The U.S. Fire Administration has only documented six firefighter suicides since its On-Duty Firefighter Fatality Program’s inception in 1970s, according to a 2021 report by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The actual number of firefighters who have died by suicide is likely far higher because the USFA’s tracking system only counts on-duty firefighter deaths and relies entirely on voluntary reporting, FEMA said.
Other firefighter organizations estimate the United States sees about 100 firefighter suicides annually, according to FEMA’s 2021 report.
First responders are at elevated risk for suicide because of the occupational and personal stress their work culture brings, the CDC states. Occupational stress is associated with an increased risk of mental health issues, including hopelessness, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
One in five firefighters and paramedics will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder in their career, according to Amy Davenport Dakin, director of the Behavioral Health Program for the Professional Firefighters of Maine.
“We know first responders have 200 percent more trauma exposure than your average person, which can lead to suicidal thoughts,” Davenport Dakin said.
While Bangor firefighters and paramedics are highly trained and capable of setting aside their emotions to help people in emergency situations, the scope of the tragedies they witness often hit them later, and can be dangerous if left unaddressed, Willey said.
“After that call and when you’re left with your own thoughts is when it haunts you,” he said. “Many people have night terrors because when you don’t process those traumatic events, your brain re-lives it when you sleep.”
This can lead some to adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms, like substance use, which can lead to further financial and interpersonal issues, he said.
To help Bangor first responders maintain their mental health, Willey said the Local 772 union provides access to trained clinicians firefighters can speak with following a traumatic event.
“If a crew goes to a pediatric cardiac arrest and has exposure to a traumatic event, I connect with every one of those people to see if they’re alright and send them resources,” he said. “We want those firefighters to be able to access those resources without any of us knowing. We don’t want people to suck it up and suffer.”
While mental health support is available for firefighters, Willey said first responders struggle to combat the “suck it up and be a man mentality” and the stigma that accessing mental health support makes a person weak. Some firefighters even fear reaching out for help will lead them to lose their jobs.
Aside from the stigma surrounding mental health, Davenport Dakin said first responders also face insurance issues and long waitlists that prevent them from getting the timely support and treatment they need.
“We have to talk about mental health and suicide because if we don’t, we’re not going to see change,” Willey said. “We don’t want to lose another firefighter, so we have to make sure everyone feels comfortable enough to sit down and talk about it. If my back hurts because of a fire last week, I’m going to sit with others and complain about it and get it fixed. The same needs to go for mental health.”