When a fellow Glendale firefighter in despair approached Ashley Losch on the job about struggles with mental health, Ashley found herself in an unfamiliar place.
Firefighters are highly trained and highly skilled thinkers and problem solvers by trade.
Not this time.
“I didn’t feel prepared. I didn’t know how to help them in a way that would be effective other than listening,” Capt. Losch, a Glendale firefighter, remembered on Sept. 15, during a break at Station 101, at 6851 N. 52nd Ave. “It just didn’t feel like enough.”
Mental illness and the safest, most effective ways to support it among firefighters has been in sharp focus of late.
A 2018 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation -- a non-partisan, philanthropic organization advocating “for and advance the inclusion of people with disabilities” -- revealed that firefighters across the U.S. statistically are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. In 2017, there were at least 103 firefighter suicides and, in contrast, 93 firefighters killed in the line of duty.
“Suicide is a result of mental illness, including depression and PTSD, which stems from constant exposure to death and destruction,” the foundation wrote, adding that firefighters die by suicide at “a considerably higher rate” (18/100,000) than the general population (13/100,000).
The Glendale Fire Department, which spans nine stations, 12 units, and 257 sworn firefighters, took swift action in response.
GFD is one of the busiest fire departments in the U.S., receiving more than 44,000 calls each year – that’s about 120 calls each day. Last year GFD was identified as a department in need of mental health tools and support, according to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, which assisted the department with a $43,000 grant to develop a peer support and counseling program to address this critical issue.
The program trained 20 firefighters to recognize trauma and how to approach colleagues when they have experienced trauma to urge them to seek further support. The grant also provided funds for an on-staff doctor who is available to meet with firefighters and their families when they need further support.
In the program’s first year, 20 percent of Glendale’s firefighters have met with the counselor.
“The firefighters have absolutely responded so well to it,” said Dr. Tania Glenn, the on-site counselor serving GFD.
Ms. Glenn employs Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) technique; a therapy developed in the early 1990s that she calls “one of the heaviest hitters in both treating and mitigating trauma.”
The technique assists the brain in “unlocking the synapses of the front lobe and processing and downloading the trauma from the frontal lobe, which is where the brain captures it,” she explained. “For the first time ever, it’s able to push the trauma to the longterm memory. The trauma goes from being this awful, triggering, horrible event that you can’t shake to being a fading, distant memory, which is where we need all the traumas to go.”
Ms. Glenn’s first foray into applying EMDR therapy to first responders was notable.
Her first day of EMDR training was April 19, 1995, the day of the Oklahoma City bombing, and her first actual patient outside of training came two weeks later in the form of an Oklahoma City firefighter who had run into the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and saw what was left of the tragic daycare carnage.
“He was not OK,” she remembered. “I found myself telling him about this new technique, and we weren’t even really sure how it worked. And he’s like ‘I’ll do anything.’ And I watched this transformation in this gentleman, and he retired as a battalion chief a few years ago.”
“And that’s how I started.”
She has since authored a number of books on the treatment, including her latest, “Smashing The Stigma and Changing the Culture in Emergency Services,” which will include references to her work with the Glendale Fire Department when released next month.
Without the new peer support group, firefighters run the risk of not opening up about the trauma of their job experiences otherwise.
“We as a group typically don’t go home and tell our significant others,” Capt. Losch said. “We don’t want to put that burden on them. We don’t want them to have the visuals that we have. So an argument among spouses is ‘You never talk to me, you never tell me what’s going on.’ Because we don’t want to put that on them. And so there becomes this struggle of keeping them out and them not feeling connected while trying to protect them. And self-medication becomes a problem because of that.”
The list of firefighter peers who have gone through the training is posted in each Glendale station, so firefighters who feel a need to talk about their experiences can approach those colleagues privately. If the need to talk further remains, firefighters can call or text Dr. Glenn personally to schedule an appointment.
None of the networking goes through the department, in order to maintain anonymity. The department doesn’t know who Dr. Glenn treats.
“The leaders who understand first responders and mental health, they understand that personnel won’t access care if they fear repercussion or they fear that their confidentiality will be violated,” said Ms. Glenn, who added that when she started in Glendale she had an instant case load of 35 firefighters. “So going through the department is not the best way to do that.”
That firefighter who approached Capt. Losch before the program was started has recovered and is “doing great,” she added. He, like her and others, now have the tools to feel safe about discussing mental issues they may be facing as well as how to build resiliency.
“We’re the ones you call for help,” she said, “so we’re not taught to be the ones that ask for help.”
Anyone feeling desperate is urged to call 1-800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.