Fire departments working to help crews with mental health illnesses

Hampton

HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and 10 On Your Side is highlighting a team that’s working to help first responders live.

The Critical Incident Stress Management Team has been around for years on the Virginia Peninsula and is made up of Newport News and Hampton firefighters.

The team helps firefighters with not only the stresses and traumas they see on the job, but also at home.

“Suicidal [ideation] is 47% in firefighters,” said Jamie Rastatter, a senior medic firefighter in Hampton. “18% of firefighters with depression come up with a plan, and those with an attempt, 15.7%.”

Rastatter, who’s been in the department for 17 years, has been on the Critical Incident Stress Management Team for most of her career and believes that being able to talk with other first responders helps them process.

“When I first came in 17 years ago, we had two suicides. One suicide is too many, but over the course of 17 years, we’ve only had one additional. I think it’s because more people are comfortable about how they feel. There’s no mockery and we just want to help them,” she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, first responders are more likely to die from suicide than in the line of duty.

Susannah Uroskie, the president of the Coastal Virginia chapter for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, says being able to talk with others is helpful with managing stress.

“That peer support is just a huge element,” she said.

Uroskie says NAMI Coastal Virginia has seen an increase over the last year with calls in asking for help or looking for resources to help others. She’s also seen an increase in suicides and overdoses.

“We’ve got the COVID-19 pandemic, but we have a mental health pandemic in our country,” she said.

Uroskie says the calls that first responders respond to can really impact mental health.

“They’re the first ones onto those traumatic scenes. It’s challenging. It’s dangerous, and they’re repeatedly going through those situations,” she said.

Over the last couple of years, the team has switched to more personal tactics to be more impactful.

“If you think firemen and policemen and military, there’s a macho personality. People don’t like to get together in big groups and talk about their problems. This is one-on-one. You can go to each other,” Rastatter said.

Because of that model, you also don’t have to be on the team to help out.

“There’s always someone out there you can call. I’m grateful the past eight years of my career I’ve had Jamie to lean on,” said Hampton Firefighter Kaitlin Misco.

Misco isn’t on the team but still is a call away for many, some of which who aren’t even in the two departments.

Rastatter says they also work with other counties on the Peninsula to provide mental health assistance because they’re sometimes working the same calls.

“With her [Rastatter] helping me, I’m able to help other people in the department,” Misco said. “My phone constantly rings to help other people. I know I’m not on the crisis team myself but I’ve been able to help other people in Hampton Roads and the area.”

If you need help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255.

It is available 24/7.

You can learn more about resources here for NAMI Coastal Virginia ,NAMI Hampton/Newport News, or NAMI Williamsburg.

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