TAMPA — Police officers and firefighters are often justly hailed as heroes for the lives they save. But the trauma resulting from those they can’t can lead to a deadly result: suicide.
On Tuesday, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor joined Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan and Tampa Fire Rescue Chief Nick LoCicero to announce a new campaign offering help to first responders.
Created by Tampa advertising agency ChappellRoberts in partnership with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, the campaign “First to Respond, Last to Ask for Help," is designed to persuade first responders to dial 2-1-1 to receive anonymous psychological help.
Although each of the Hillsborough agencies have their own programs, including new training in the Sheriff’s office, which has lost two deputies to suicide in less than two years, the Crisis Center offers a way for first responders to reach out without fear of hurting their careers or reputations.
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Despite changes in recent years in the cultures of fire and police agencies, many front-line employees still consider it a sign of weakness to seek help dealing with the often horrific things they see, Dugan said.
That needs to change, he said. “In my opinion, it’s a sign of strength," Dugan said.
Castor, who worked in the Tampa police department for more than three decades, said the allure of police work carries with it a dangerous undertow.
“We get to see and do things no one else gets to see and do but we also have to see and do things nobody should have to see and do,” the mayor said.
Chronister said his staff now undergoes annual training about suicide prevention and awareness. The sheriff’s office is like a second family. Deputies would never think of leaving another deputy at a dangerous crime scene, he said: “So why should we when they’re struggling?”
Added LoCicero: “Some things you can’t un-see.”
Tampa Fire Rescue offers in-house counseling, but “sometimes it’s really not enough,” LoCicero said.
That’s where the Crisis Center can help, said CEO Clara Reynolds. The agency’s trained personnel can listen and offer guidance, she said.
The campaign will seek to spread its message through social media and public education posters, said Colleen Chappell, CEO and president of ChappellRoberts and wife of a St. Petersburg Fire-Rescue lieutenant.
Nationally, more first responders die from suicide than in the line of duty. A national survey found 6.6 percent had attempted suicide — ten times the national average. In 2018, 243 police officers, deputies and firefighters took their own lives.
Megan Vila, sister of Steve LaDue, a retired Tampa firefighter who took his own life two years ago, said her family was traumatized by his death, leaving some members not speaking to others.
“It doesn’t have to be like that for other families,” she said in an emotional moment that brought the crowd at a West Tampa warehouse to its feet in applause.
Vila worked to get a state law passed in 2018 that allows first responders to use worker’s compensation to seek help for mental illness without fear of losing their job or income.
NEED HELP: If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, reach out to the 24–hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255; contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741; or chat with someone online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay can be reached by dialing 2-1-1 or by visiting crisiscenter.com.