My View: How do we save the lives of Illinoisans who save others?

Ryan and Danielle Mains with their children.

First responders, the people we count on in an emergency, experience much higher rates of mental health crises. Tragically, 130 firefighter-paramedics across the country died by suicide last year.

My husband, Ryan Mains, could have easily been one of those statistics. As a firefighter and paramedic for Woodstock Fire/Rescue District, every day he threw himself into his work and loved knowing he was making a difference in people’s lives – but who was he supposed to turn to when he was the one who needed help?

On April 5, 2019, my husband had a mental health crisis and was having suicidal thoughts. Each traumatic call was like a drop in the bucket. Ryan seemed fine but as the drops accumulated, they started to overflow, and it was almost too late.

That morning, Ryan had called in sick for the third shift in a row. I dropped off my 8-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter at school before heading into work, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. Ryan had barely slept the past few nights and was always on edge, and I didn’t know what to do or who to talk to.

In that moment, I did a quick search online and stumbled on Illinois Firefighter Peer Support. After leaving a message, I got a call from Jack Berry, a retired firefighter. I broke down and Jack listened intently about our situation and how scared I was to leave Ryan alone.

Jack immediately called Ryan and did everything he could to keep him on the phone and safe until I got back home. Shortly after, we convinced Ryan to enter a monthlong program in Maryland focused on firefighter mental health. Our situation wasn’t an emergency until it was – and at the time I had no idea what Ryan was keeping bottled up inside.

Illinois Firefighter Peer Support (ILFFPS) quite literally saved my husband’s life. They were able to provide us immediate assistance and the resources we needed for him on his darkest day after a career of helping the community in the same way. I want to make sure other first responders know those resources are out there – and that they don’t need to feel ashamed for asking for help.

The most important step to helping a first responder having a mental health crisis is educating yourself on the warning signs. In Ryan’s case there were several red flags. He became:

• Lethargic: Ryan would have days when all he wanted to do was lie in bed.

• Irritable: Ryan lost his patience much quicker.

• Hypervigilant: Ryan became intensely fixated on things.

• Withdrawn: Ryan was reserved and exhausted.

• Impulsive: Ryan had always been even-keeled, but this changed.

Substance abuse is another common warning sign of mental health problems that a lot of firefighters suffer from. Thankfully, Ryan never dealt with this.

It took a long time to recognize these red flags when my husband was living through them, and that’s why we need to normalize talking about this kind of pain and suffering. Over time, the trauma affected Ryan so much that he couldn’t bring himself to go to work without experiencing the most crippling, intense anxiety.

First responders experience several barriers to seeking help – and the leading barrier is the stigma around mental health. There are generational differences in perceptions of mental health, and many firefighters were taught that although this is a tough job, they need to be resilient.

This is why it is so important to normalize first responders having conversations about their trauma at work, and that’s why programs like ILFFPS are such great resources. As a 450-firefighter-strong network of trained, peer supporters providing career and volunteer first responders with a safe, non-judgmental and confidential environment where they can engage in a healing conversation, ILFFPS is a trusted place for first responders to get help from someone who’s been in their shoes.

Confidentiality is key, and firefighters don’t need to worry about their careers or getting in trouble with their department for making the call to ILFFPS. In addition to matching first responders to peer supporters, ILFFPS connects those suffering from emotional trauma with mental health professionals specialized in the needs of first responders.

I’m so grateful for what ILFFPS has done for my husband that I’ve decided to go back to school to become a licensed mental health counselor. I’m inspired to help make conversations about mental health easier for first responders like Ryan and their families.

If you or a first responder you know needs help, call the ILFFPS Peer Support Hotline at 855-90-SUPPORT or email ILFFPS at The hotline is available to any volunteer or full-time first responder, and their family. Take it from someone who’s been there – make that call and get the help you need, before it’s too late.

Danielle Mains is married to Ryan Mains, Army combat medic veteran and former firefighter and paramedic for Woodstock Fire/Rescue District. for more information and self-help resources.

via Rockford Register Star

November 17, 2020 at 05:47PM

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