'Something has to change.' Firefighters facing stress on the job lack mental health support

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Posted at 3:32 PM, Aug 27, 2021

They work around the clock to save property and lives. But when firefighters need help, who do they call? The wife of one firefighter who served at Engine 41 in Detroit before he died by suicide says in his honor, we need to talk about it.

Related: Firefighters & Substance Abuse: How job stress can manifest into problems with alcohol, drugs

"Something has to change. There has to be something for them," said Becci Finn.

Becci's husband, Steve Finn, served the City of Detroit as a firefighter for 24 years.

“He’s a really good dad, a good husband, extremely hardworking, kind, would do anything to help anybody and he’s missed by a lot of people,” said Becci Finn.

She said she always felt so proud of the work he did as a firefighter. He sometimes became fixated on traumatic scenes where people could not be saved.
He turned to alcohol to cope. He tried to get help, but on December 1, died by suicide.

She wants to see more robust mental health support for first responders, before they get to a crisis point.

"They don’t realize how much they are helping anybody else and that it can wear them down," she said.

"These men and women chose a profession where they serve others and they risk their lives, so it is hard going to the funerals," said Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones.

Jones said just last month Retired Sergeant Patrick Burt also died by suicide, less than 2 months after retiring.

Plus, Mayor Mike Duggan in March called for a study to be done on mental health services after two separate crashes where fire department members were believed to be under the influence.

Courtesy The Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders

Jones said the study found the department needs to do more, like expand its peer to peer counseling program, and improved its leave policy to create substance abuse recovery opportunities.

It also needs to make sure firefighters know there is no shame in asking for help.

"You won’t be judged. We want to help you, because we appreciate you. We appreciate that you risk your life every day for strangers," said Jones.

Retired Michigan State Police Captain Harold Love is now a counselor, servicing first responders who come to his independent practice in Southfield.

"The dirtiest four letter word in the vocabulary of a public safety professional is help. We don’t seek help for ourselves. We help others," said Love.

He said he is lucky he got counseling after two traumatic incidents early in his career.

"Everything I was going through was a reaction to the abnormal things I had experienced on the job," said Love.

West Bloomfield Fire Chief Gregory Flynn says it is important to understand this is not just a Detroit problem.

"We are committed to changing the trajectory of death by suicide within engine houses and the communities we serve," said Flynn.

Right after he became chief, West Bloomfield Fire Lt. Jeff Hiltner died by suicide in 2015.

Chief Flynn started the Yellow Rose Campaign, working to erase the stigma of asking for help.

He said his department learned that insurance only covered visits for diagnosed mental health problems, so his department provides mental health wellness visits, so there is access to help and advice before a diagnosis is needed.

Courtesy International Association of Firefighters

He believes this is a change society needs.

Steve Finn’s wife hopes this story inspires others needed help to seek it.

"Just talk. If you are feeling down, go see somebody. Don’t be down and be by yourself. You can’t hide it. You need to face it," she said.

Resources that can help firefighters in crisis:

- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

- SAMHSA’s National Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

All Clear Foundation

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

International Association of Fire Fighters

- Volunteer Firefighter Alliance

First Responder White Paper by WXYZ-TV Channel 7 Detroit on Scribd