Rio Rancho Fire and Rescue brings awareness to mental health wellness for firefighters through the Yellow Rose Campaign.

September marks suicide prevention month and the YRC initiative between RRFR and the local firefighters’ union, International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) 4877.

The campaign was created by the Michigan Fire Chiefs Association in 2018 to encourage a supportive and emotional-wellness culture among firefighters, according to a press release from RRFR. In 2019, the New Mexico Fire Chiefs Association adopted the YRC.

The Yellow Rose Campaign logo on Rio Rancho Fire Rescue T-shirts for Suicide Prevention Month. Amy Byres photo.

“We also looked into, along with the YRC, ‘Stop the stigma.’ It was another saying that we kind of grabbed a hold of and it stuck out to us, because we don’t want the people on the floor doing the job, to feel the stigma of, ‘Well, we just got to suck it up and keep going.’ It is OK to reach out and it is OK to say you need help,” said IAFF 4877 President Chris Mandeville.

In 2018, over 48,000 Americans died by suicide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is one death every 11 minutes. In 2018, about 1.4 million adults attempted suicide, according to the CDC.

New Mexico has the highest suicide rate in the U.S., according to the American Association of Suicidology.

A study funded by the Ruderman Family Foundation indicated first responders are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. In 2017, at least 103 firefighters died by suicide, with 93 firefighters dying in the line of duty.

Firefighters and police officers experience post-traumatic stress disorder at a rate five times higher than the civilian population, according to the study.

Among resources members of RRFR can use is the Peer Support Team. This consists of 13 firefighters who have received mental health training to support to their peers and connect them to more resources.

Capt. Ryan Floersheim of RRFR is a part of this team.

“All the research has found that peer support teams, like ours, get used a lot more than just sending someone off to a psychologist or a counselor that doesn’t know what we do on a daily basis,” Floersheim said.

“So, our personnel are really a lot more likely to turn to one of our own who are experiencing the same things, and so we are able to start the conversation a lot easier with them because we can sympathize with what they are going through.”

Floersheim monitors for signs of emotional distress and is consistently checking in with peers to see if they are doing OK, he said. After exceptionally difficult calls, the Peer Support Team is sent to talk with crew members.

“We sit down with them and make sure they are processing everything that they saw,” he said.

This consistent opportunity to talk with a peer is creating a culture of mental wellness among first responders, something that was not always the case, he said.

“We started realizing (firefighters) were having significant mental health problems after they retired. Part of it was because they never had the chance to decompress and talk about (trauma) when they were experiencing it,” Floersheim said. “That is when we realized, as a profession, we really needed to up our game as far as providing mental health resources.”

Losing a comrade to suicide is something the department has experienced, he said. Lt. Colin “Bubba” James Rice died by his own hand in June 2019.

“He was the other co-leader of the peer support team, so he and I helped build the team,” Floersheim said. “(Mental wellness) was always important before then because we were aware of the nationwide epidemic that was growing in the fire service as far as mental health disorders, suicides, divorces and substance (abuse) and all the things that go along with it, but we never imagined that it would hit that close to home.”

Badge number 886 belonged to Lt. Colin “Bubba” James Rice, who died by suicide in June 2019. For Suicide Prevention Month, firefighters at Station 1 on Southern Boulevard honored him by wearing his badge number and the Yellow Rose Campaign logo. Amy Byres photo.

To honor Rice, crew members at Station 1 on Southern Boulevard wore T-shirts for suicide prevention month, with Rice’s badge number on the sleeve and the YRC logo on the front. As part of the YRC, RRFR firefighters received a challenge coin for taking a voluntary pledge to be supportive of each other and to destigmatize mental health issues, Floersheim said.

He said changing the mental wellness culture among first responders is a work in progress but asking for help is the most important step anyone can take.

Those experiencing suicidal thoughts or emotional distress can call the New Mexico Crisis and Access Line at any time by dialing 1-855-662-7474. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.

“It is important to note that everyone can make a difference by being open to listen, help in the efforts to destigmatize mental health disease and realize that it is normal to feel stressed, especially during these unprecedented times of COVID-19,” according to the press release.