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Number of Unified firefighters seeking mental health support doubles

SALT LAKE CITY — Mental health continues to be a growing concern among first responders.

In the past two years, the number of Unified Fire Authority firefighters seeking mental health support has doubled.

That’s about 30% of the overall team. 

KSL’s Alex Cabrero spoke with some firefighters about that.

Molly Doyle never knows when that call is going to come.

None of them do.

It’s the nature of being a firefighter.

“My job is to drive the engine to whatever call that is,” said Doyle, who is a firefighter with the Unified Fire Authority.

Molly Doyle

Although they are called firefighters, most of the calls that come to the UFA are now medical calls.

Crews are trained to fight fires as well as offer emergency medical service.

“People call us on their worst day,” said Doyle.

Because of all those calls, though, Doyle has also been getting more calls lately from her colleagues.

That’s because she is on UFA’s peer support team.

“I think asking for help is really difficult for a lot of us,” she said. “There’s a concern or a stigma that it shows we can’t solve all the problems, and we’re the type of people who got into this to help others and solve problems.”

Doyle is one of many UFA firefighters who are on a list for any firefighter to call.

Mental health is a growing concern for the department.

In the past two years, Unified Fire Authority has seen the number of firefighters asking for mental health assistance double.

That’s roughly 30% of the department.

“That’s a hard number to look at,” said Doyle. “Are we having more of a need? Or has it become an environment where people feel safe and it’s okay to ask for help?”

Many firefighters feel it’s a little of both.

COVID has certainly added to the stress of the job, which is part of why UFA has added more resources for firefighters to talk to someone.

The department even partnered with the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, specifically for first responder trauma.

“As mental health becomes more of an awareness point for us, more and more people are reaching out and getting help,” said Layne Hilton, Unified Fire Authority’s behavioral health and wellness officer.

“We’ve also started to pay more attention to first responder suicide,” he said. “In our world, firefighter EMS. We’re looking at those suicide rates and they are really high. That’s something that has really caused a lot of folks to pay attention to this issue.”

Layne Hilton, Unified Fire Authority’s behavioral health and wellness officer.

It wasn’t always that way.

Unified Fire Captain Eric Holmes has spent more than 17 years as a firefighter. He says going back even ten years ago, mental health is something that wasn’t talked about openly.

“It definitely took its toll on me, and I probably, I definitely wasn’t taking care of myself the way I should have been,” said Holmes.

Capt. Eric Holmes

Holmes says that stigma of having to be a tough, macho firefighter who never admits something is bugging them has changed in the past few years to where it’s okay to talk.

“I would say I’m probably, hopefully, the last of the era where it was just kind of deal with it,” he said.

Now, new firefighters, and their spouses and families, are part of mental health training during their introductory classes.

Unified firefighter Kelly Bird has been on the job about three years but remembers a list his wife was given on things to watch for when it comes to mental health and the stress of the job.

“Fortunately, I’ve got a wife that is just adorable,” he said “She kept that list and looks at it and has come to me a couple of times and said, ‘Hey, you’re hitting these spots on the list. Let’s just take a look at it.'”

Kelly Bird

Not only does it help them in their personal lives, it also helps them to be better firefighters when that tough call comes.

“I think what it took was some of the older, saltier firefighters to say that they needed help,” said Doyle. “It really does work.”

Ultimately, we all benefit from that when we have to call for help.

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