Chicago Firefighter Suicide Report Seeks Answers

After experiencing seven suicides within an 18-month period a few years ago by active or retired members of the Chicago Fire Department, Local 2's Employee Assistance Program began investigating the growing problem.

After the deaths spanning the beginning of 2007 to the middle of 2008, the EAP asked the question: Why?

Their search for the elusive answer began with visits to every firehouse, creating posters packed with information and resources, writing and disseminating articles on various topics to firefighters and collaborating with department officials to implement an annual "Family Focus Day" to help educate members on mental health issues.

While they were launching those initiatives, they also began a research project that lasted for two years and covered deaths of members between 1990 and 2010 and compared the suicide rates of Chicago firefighters to that of the general population.

That report was recently completed was expected to be sent out this week, which also happens to be International Fire/EMS Safety & Health Week, to union members.

Fire departments that wish to obtain a copy of the report can contact the EAP at eap@iaff-local2.org.

They researched 1,787 deaths of active and retired members who worked and indentified a total of 41 suicides. All of the suicides were committed by males and the average age was 55.

The study found that while the national suicide rate during the same time period ranged between 10 and 12 suicides per 100,000 people each year, when the Chicago EAP stats were converted to match the national numbers, the number was around 25 suicides per 10,000 people.

While some years during the 20 year span covered there were no firefighter deaths while the national average still stayed about the same, the numbers are still alarming and Local 2's EAP Director Dan DeGryse stressed that one suicide is one too many.

"We're in a job where you need to help other people and sometimes you forget about yourself," he said, adding that while there has been talk over the last couple of years about firefighter suicides, not much research has been done.

DeGryse admitted that combing through the more than thousand deaths was taxing on his staff, having to relive each one all over again.

"If someone doesn't do the first study, how can there be a baseline for other departments to follow?" he asked.

While he'll have to wait until the report has been in the hands of firefighters for a while before any effect can be noticed, he said that other initiatives -- especially the Family Focus Days -- have been very successful.

The fourth annual Family Focus Day will be held on Sept. 29 this year -- which is later than previous years due to the NATO Summit.

The first event, which combined information about mental health and other topics in a fun setting, drew about 600 people in 2009. The second event drew around 800 and last year's event drew close to 900.

"I'd like to think that we make it a well-rounded event so that people aren't afraid to attend," he said. "It covers all of wellness."

Aside from mental health issues the event also covers finance, nutrition and a variety of other topics.

Since they started to host the events, he said there appears to have been an impact.

"We've only had one the last two years, but we don't know if in five years from now if we've made an impact."

Over the past few years, the office has only received about 150 mental health visits per year while the yearly average for the previous year was around 300.

He said that the number of visits has gone down in part because firefighters know where to get help.

"The exposure of the program has hopefully helped get help to people sooner so the problems don't worsen," he said. "The whole idea of the program is marketing, so people know where to seek help."

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