Montgomery County’s first responders told county, state and federal officials Wednesday that their agencies need better resources to combat suicide and other mental health problems.
U.S. Rep. David Trone hosted the forum less than a month after county police officer T.J. Bomba died of a gunshot wound on top of a parking garage in Silver Spring Oct. 14. Police said the next day that Bomba had died of a self-inflicted wound.
Trone, a Democrat whose district includes northern parts of Montgomery County, mentioned the late officer’s name at the beginning of the forum.
“We lost a person in the prime of his life, because we as a society didn’t step up. … We owe it to each other to work with each other to try to move forward,” he said.
Several federal, state and county officials or their representatives attended the forum, which was held at the Nancy H. Dacek Community Recreation Center in North Potomac.
Trone cited national statistics that more than 180 police officers have died by suicide in 2019, according to the nonprofit Blue H.E.L.P, which works to end the stigma surrounding mental health problems in law enforcement. He also cited the statistic of 100 firefighters and EMTs who died by suicide in 2018, according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance.
“Those numbers are only moving in a very, very bad direction. So we’ve got a real hidden crisis,” he said.
Marcus Jones, who the County Council confirmed as police chief on Tuesday, said Bomba’s death has “touched the department in so many different ways.” He said he, too, is disturbed by the high number of officer suicides.
“In law enforcement and across this country, we are just seeing a staggering number of officers suffering from mental illness and taking their lives,” he said.
Jones said the department, which has 1,300 officers, is hiring its second psychologist, but significantly more resources are needed.
“When I look at a 1,300-member department, that’s not sufficient for this size,” he said.
Stacey Daniel, a battalion chief with Montgomery County Fire & Rescue, said many stressors she typically sees in firefighters come from outside of work.
“It’s the life incidents. It’s the wife. It’s the dog. It’s the car broken down. It’s the mortgage. All of that stuff piles up,” she said.
For trauma on the job, Daniel said, psychologists well versed in the realities that emergency responders face on the job. To illustrate her point, she recalled the treatment she received after going out on a call to a house fire and holding a dead child in her arms. Daniel said she later saw a psychologist and had to explain technical details, such as the nature of her medic job at the scene.
“It became more of an education to her than it was to me,” she said.
Much of the on-the-job stress for emergency responders is from seeing people at their best and worst moments, sometimes back to back, Fire & Rescue Chief Scott Goldstein said.
“You’re expected to be able to take an amazing emotional high, a child birth, and then you could be on the emotionally worst of calls, a child struck fatally, and then turn around and roll into another call,” he said.
Heather Miles, a 911 dispatch operator, said she and her colleagues who work during nighttime hours often need the remainder of the day to rest, leaving little time for therapy.
“Working [a midnight shift], sometimes a phone call to counseling on your hotline isn’t going to suffice. … When do we have that time, if we’re sleeping 9 to 5, to have a counselor?” she said.
Roundtable participants agreed that one of the largest overall obstacles to discussing suicide and mental health openly in their departments was stigma and a fear of possible retribution.
Eric Fessenden, a retired county firefighter treated for post-traumatic stress disorder through the International Association of Fire Fighters, said departments must create a culture in which co-workers can discuss problems openly with each other.
“One big thing that I don’t believe management understands is that unfortunately, most firefighters below high management don’t trust management,” he said. “It’s not a personal attack against that human being. They just don’t trust it because they feel they’ll get fired.”
Fessenden said most of the time, stigmas surrounding mental health are self-imposed.
“There’s the outward stigma, which is what everyone else is gonna think of me. In reality, when you go get the help, you realize that the stigma is just my own stigma,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org