March 30, 2023 Proposed legislation in Maine would give public safety leaders latitude to classify police and first responder suicides as deaths in the line of duty.
By John Terhune Source Portland Press Herald, Maine Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
They devote their careers to rescuing those in need. But for too many first responders, the weight of the lives they couldn’t save becomes a crushing burden.
A legislative committee on Wednesday endorsed a bill that would give public safety leaders latitude to classify first responder suicides as deaths in the line of duty. The measure would make victims’ families eligible for a $100,000 survivors benefit.
“We need to do a better job of taking care of our public safety providers and their mental health,” Northeast Mobile Health Services COO Rick Petrie told the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety at a public hearing last week. “When we fail, we need to recognize that their death is as much a line of duty death as getting killed in an accident or getting shot or stabbed.”
Nine first responders in Maine have taken their own lives since 2020, when the state began tracking that data, according to Maine EMS Director Sam Hurley.
The public safety committee voted unanimously Wednesday to send L.D. 439, sponsored by Rep. Suzanne Salisbury, D- Westbrook, to the full Legislature.
“Any time we can talk about these professions and making sure that mental health is a part of that conversation is important,” she said. “It’s really hard to convince somebody to go into EMS, a job that you might make $15 an hour, and potentially be exposed to some really scary diseases and potentially some traumatic events.”
“You can’t get that out of your mind”
Bob Young was hardly a rookie cop. A 30-year law enforcement veteran, the Piscataquis County Sheriff’s officer had already been hardened by plenty of violent sights when he responded to a suicide attempt several years ago.
But what he saw shook him to his core.
For weeks, he could not shake the image of the victim, still alive and standing after a gunshot to the head. Nor could Young escape the thought that flashed across his mind, a thought that police officers aren’t supposed to have: “Run.”
“I guess my concern was that others would see that as a weakness,” explained Young, now sheriff of Piscataquis County and a supporter of L.D. 439. “Nobody in this job wants to be seen as weak.”
First responders regularly encounter abnormal situations that would cause emotional reactions in most people, Hurley said. Managing those responses is critical to maintaining a first responder’s well-being, but such careers have long maintained a culture that prioritizes toughness and stigmatizes reaching out for help.
As a result, police officers, EMTs and firefighters suffer from high rates of PTSD and substance abuse disorders, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“If you’ve been in this business for very long, it happens,” Young said. “There are those events that so flood your mind with an image, with a smell, with a sound, that you cannot escape it. It will not let you go.”
The ones we don’t see
Melissa Adams has seen progress.
When she began her 21-year public safety career as a volunteer firefighter she felt the deep, familial bonds common in the profession, but she also noticed that coworkers often deflected emotional conversations with satire or black humor.
“We now know that’s really not the way to process through those feelings,” said Adams, who now works for Maine EMS after spending years as a dispatcher.
Younger first responders today are more willing to reach out for help, thanks in part to a growing number of resources such as peer support networks. Since becoming a trained NAMI Maine volunteer in 2015, Adams has offered her contact information to any emergency service worker who wants to talk about something they’ve experienced on the job.
Informal conversations offer a low-stakes opportunity for first responders to talk through their feelings, while allowing volunteers like Adams to watch for signs they might need professional counseling.
But even as these professions have gotten better at identifying who might need help, some still slip through the cracks, including a colleague of Adams’ who took his own life two years ago.
“He was the person who would offer peer support over and over when it wasn’t requested, when you didn’t think you needed it,” Adams remembered. “Nobody considered that he needed it. He dealt with those (invisible) wounds all by himself for years, and nobody knew.”
“This is real”
L.D. 439 acknowledges that some people will always slip through the cracks, Hurley said. The bill could help families of those victims, who are already eligible for a federal benefit, cover expenses such as mortgage or tuition payments even if their private life insurance doesn’t cover suicides.
Nine Maine first responders have taken their own lives since 2020, when the state began tracking that data, according to Hurley.
He added that L.D. 439 and similar bills can help first responders by destigmatizing workplace trauma and the mental wounds it causes.
“We have to talk about how this is real,” Hurley said. “This happens.”