South Metro Fire Department, a joint department shared between West St. Paul and South St. Paul, rolled out a new program to address mental health among firefighters and first responders. The ground-breaking program is called PAR 360, and South Metro Fire is one of the first departments to participate.
The need is tremendous. In August, St. Paul firefighter Tommy McDonough killed himself. According to Tommy’s father, a lack of support and resources played a role in his son’s death.
The statistics about firefighters are sobering:
- First responders attempt suicide at a rate six to 10 times the general population.
- Firefighters also have twice the rate of alcoholism, four times the rate of post-traumatic stress, eight times the rate of depression, and 18 times the rate of anxiety compared to the general populace.
- Half of all firefighters think about killing themselves, and 20% make a plan to do it. Heart attacks used to be the leading cause of death among firefighters; now it’s suicide.
First responders see a tremendous amount of trauma on a daily basis, and that can be a challenge to process. Not dealing with it can often result in anger, cynicism, depression, alcoholism, insomnia, and more.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is cultural: 92% of firefighters view seeking help as a sign of weakness.
“When I started I started in this profession, you did not speak about that. If you came back to the station and started talking to your buddies or other firefighters, you were always told, ‘Pull up your boot straps, deal with it, suck it up,'” said South Metro Fire Chief Mark Juelfs. “That was the mentality. Unfortunately, that mentality still permeates the fire service, locally and nationally.”
South Metro isn’t immune. Within a few months of Juelfs taking the job as fire chief in 2019, he had two firefighters contemplating suicide. Thankfully those firefighters have found help, but it prompted a search for resources and a changing culture that’s willing to talk about these difficult realities.
The PAR 360 program serves as first responders for first responders. They provide emergency response, consultation, and training. The program offers a confidential screening tool, resources, vetted providers who understand the needs of emergency personnel, resiliency training, bi-annual mental health check-ups, family training, and more.
“We’re trying to frame it as a personal resiliency program so we can build the skills and abilities to deal with this before it becomes a mental health issue,” said Juelfs.
PAR 360 is developed by psychologist Dr. Margaret Gavian, who also serves as the medical director for a state-wide effort, MnFire.
South Metro first connected with Dr. Gavian in late 2019 after the suicide of a South St. Paul police officer. They brought her in to offer counseling, and she was in the process of developing PAR 360. Now South Metro will be the first client in this innovative new program and will help develop it.
“I can see our culture is already changing,” said Juelfs. “Now they can openly discuss calls. That used to be looked down upon and ostracized. But as chief I’m working really hard to change this culture, and it’s been effective.”
South Metro was able to pay for the program thanks to their healthcare insurance coming in under budget, though at a presentation to the West St. Paul City Council they seemed eager to make room for PAR 360 in future budgets.
“Showing that vulnerability, I know is really challenging,” said Council Member Lisa Eng-Sarne. “One shared their story and that helped the other. … Your city is here for you.”
Paired with the nationally recognized program providing the West St. Paul Police Department with mental health checks, this is an incredible boost to our emergency personnel.
More: Check out KARE 11’s story on PAR 360.
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