New peer hotline seeks to help firefighters facing mental health crises

Firefighters stand by after police evacuate the area due to a gas leak.
Firefighters stand by after police evacuate the area after a construction equipment struck a gas main in Minneapolis in 2017.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

The Minnesota Firefighter Initiative recently launched a peer support help line for firefighters who are thinking about suicide. Any Minnesota Firefighter can call if they're thinking about or planning to take their own life. Just three months in, they are already surprised by the number of calls they've gotten.

It's not often talked about but firefighters and emergency workers are more likely to take their own lives than the general public.

Chris Culkins, the paramedic program director at Century College and a former firefighter, studies suicide among emergency workers and says just about everyone knows a collegue who has died by suicide.

"I was sitting around a table with a few other paramedics several years ago and we started throwing out names of people we knew who died by suicide and we came up with all these names and it was kind of an epiphany," Caulkins says. "We looked around and said, 'Wow, carpenters can't do this.'"

Caulkins says 10 of his colleagues and former students have died by suicide. He thinks the prevalence of suicide among emergency workers is in large part due to the nature of the job.

"We get a front row seat to all the bad stuff-the murders, the sexual assaults, the elder abuse, the child abuse-and then the just the horrible injuries and illnesses that aren't necessarily from something nefarious but they're bad," Caulkins said. "And that I think is the crux of the problem that interacts with all the other things that are going on."

Despite the prevalence of mental illness and suicide in their ranks, Caulkins says first responders don't often talk about it. In his research, Caulkins has found many firefighters fear that seeking help for mental illness will hurt their career opportunities. And he says emergency workers don't want to appear weak.

"[It's] the cowboy culture. And by cowboy I mean women, too. It's like military culture. That's like public safety culture. Suck it up. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps. Help others before you help yourself," Caulkins said. Caulkins is in England today presenting on the issue of mental illness among emergency responders. Later he'll travel to New Zealand. He says the issue is finally getting more attention but there's still much to be done to help those who help others.