Alabama firefighters receive funding to expand mental health services

WAFF's Megan Plotka reporting
Published: Dec. 2, 2022 at 8:44 AM CST

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - Firefighters are constantly going up against blazing homes and deadly accidents but they’re also fighting an invisible battle for their mental health.

The Alabama Department of Mental Health is helping stop this growing concern by funding the Alabama First Responder Peer Support Program.

Firefighters work a physically exhausting and dangerous job. It’s also mentally draining to run towards a stressful scene like a fire, especially if someone’s been hurt or killed inside. These situations can lead to serious mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

Studies show firefighters face a higher rate of suicide ideations compared to the general public.

WAFF's Megan Plotka reporting

Alabama Fire College Executive Director Matt Russell says Alabama firefighters are seeing an uptick in substance abuse and suicidal ideations.

“They have to find a way to relieve that pain and that’s where you see the alcohol abuse, the substance abuse even to a point committing suicide,” said Russell. “These events are traumatic. Firefighters and police officers are human and oftentimes don’t know how to deal with this.”

Russell hopes the expanded peer-led program will help struggling firefighters. The Alabama First Responder Peer Support Program has been active since 2018 but trainers were unpaid. This new funding will go towards paying trainers for their work and coaching other people to host their own sessions.

They can become certified to help other firefighters how to take care of themselves and access available resources.

He’s hoping to recruit leaders from each region of the state so firefighters can hear this sensitive information from people they know and trust.

“It’s necessary that we have a happy and healthy workforce,” said Russell. “In order for us to do that, sometimes people just need someone to talk to and it does help when they know people have been in similar circumstances and they can share those experiences and how they dealt with it.”

Russell says if a firefighter is interested in bringing training to their department they can talk to their regional coordinator.