The Charlotte Fire Department is joining the U.S. Veterans Hall of Fame and its community partners on Saturday for the fourth-annual mental health awareness walk.
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, with nearly 46,000 deaths in 2020. This is about one death every 11 minutes. The number of people who think about or attempt suicide is even higher. In 2020, an estimated 12.2 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.2 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1.2 million attempted suicide.
Some groups have higher suicide rates than others. U.S. veterans have higher than average rates of suicide. According to the U.S. Veterans Hall of Fame, more than 22 veterans die by suicide daily.
"Many times, we lose our veterans to mental health crises due to preventable situations that only require a small investment into their lives. The same is true for everyday Americans and friends that we care for," said Curtis Drafton, founder of the hall of fame.
The mission of the U.S. Veterans Hall of Fame is to pay public tribute to men and women of prior military service who exemplify great character and service, and to gather resources that enhance the lives of veterans after their military careers have ended.
"When we look at research, what is it that is pointing to why the numbers are so high for veterans is the exact same reasons that fall upon civilians. It's inadequate housing, not enough job pay to take care of a family, and trauma associated with PTSD," Drafton said.
Drafton believes consistency is imperative to the mental health of veterans.
"Veterans, just like anybody else, we need to know who we can trust and with that comes consistency," he said.
According to the CDC, suicide, like other human behaviors, has no single determining cause. Instead, suicide occurs in response to multiple biological, psychological, interpersonal, environmental and societal influences that interact with one another, often over time.
To improve mental wellness within Charlotte Fire has developed an internal behavioral health program.
Led by Andrew Starnes, battalion chief for Charlotte Fire, the peer-to-peer support program has made a significant impact in the lives of those within the department.
"Peer-to-peer is someone to talk with that understands you and has empathy, not sympathy," Starnes said. "Our peers are someone who can relate to what you're going through because they have experiential relevance in that particular area. Whether it is a firefighter talking to a firefighter, an inspector talking to an inspector, or a dispatcher talking to a dispatcher, our team is very diverse because we have all different divisions serving on the team."
In 2018, there were 20 members on the peer support team. Now, the team has more than 60. Peer support team members are required to have two certifications to serve; critical incident stress management and peer support.
Starnes said that the toughest firefighters need to ask for help. A firefighter's constant exposure to traumatic events and life-threatening situations, and the stress of working long hours away from family members and under high-stakes conditions, can easily build up and take a huge toll on mental health.
With the constant alarm sounding at a firehouse, firefighters often don't have time to process one grim experience before they face the next one.
"Our peer support team have all gone through something very difficult and each one of them has a diverse experience that they can share, and some have suffered things that are unspeakable," Starnes said. "But each one of them has the courage to go in and listen and say, 'I know how you feel' and mean it."
Therapy can be an effective tool to restore or maintain mental health. Discussing difficult experiences and emotions with a trained therapist may be difficult, but not processing them can cause those experiences and emotions to linger longer.
In addition to the peer-to-peer support team, Charlotte Fire staff members have a multitude of behavioral health resources available to them. From the employee assistance program, which provides confidential and free services, to the North Carolina Firefighter Peer Support Network, and much more, the effort to ensure healthy mental wellness is paramount to Charlotte Fire Chief Reginald Johnson.
"We want talking about mental health to become embedded in Charlotte Fire's culture," Johnson said. "Although the role of a firefighter is to help others, it comes with intense physical and mental demands and taking time to recover and replenish is essential."
Johnson is prioritizing mental health to incorporate mental health and wellness, suicide prevention, and anti-stigma efforts into the department's workforce wellness strategy.
"Our support team are champions for fighting stigma and creating a culture of acceptance and support around mental health," Johnson said. "We view asking for help as a sign of strength, not weakness, and we want our staff to have the tools they need to succeed mentally, physically and professionally by fostering a culture of awareness, acceptance, and support."
Suicide is preventable and everyone has a role to play to save lives and create healthy and strong individuals, families, and communities.
The U.S. Veterans Hall of Fame Walk to Fight Suicide will be held Aug. 6 in uptown Charlotte at Romare Bearden Park from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Learn more information about the walk.
Call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline if you are experiencing mental health-related distress or are worried about a loved one who may need crisis support.