According to a recent national survey, first responders have significantly higher rates of suicidal thoughts than people in other professions.

The survey of more than 4,000 firefighters, conducted by the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, found about 37 percent of them had considered suicide, and 6.6 percent had attempted it.

Both numbers are ten times higher than the suicide rate in the general population.

In the Portland Fire Bureau, rank-and-file members are beginning to have honest conversations about mental health.

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“Just because they’re a firefighter doesn’t mean they’re protected from all the horrible stuff that they go out and respond to,” June Vining, who heads up the department’s Employee Assistance Program and is director of the Trauma Intervention Program, said. “None of that training prepares them for cutting an 11-year-old down who hung himself.”

Lt. Ryan Rossing, a 15-year veteran with the fire bureau, said firefighters in his crew talk about difficult calls after they finish their work on the scene, but when those calls add up, they can take a toll.

“Depression. Anxiety. You’re on pins and needles sometimes, makes not want to come to work," Rossing said. "You don’t want to deal with the kind of calls you dealt with on the last shift."

The Portland Firefighters’ Union has been pushing the bureau to provide better access to mental health services and expand the employee assistance program.

A spokesperson for the fire bureau said, “Fire Command Staff and the City of Portland are very supportive of the initiative, and have been making steady efforts for several years now to improve the mental health coverage and resources provided to firefighters.”

There is help out there for anyone struggling with depression. Lines For Life has a free 24-hour helpline: 1-800-273-8255.

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