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'I was almost a statistic' | Maine first responders open up about mental health struggles

According to data from Blue HELP and Red HELP, more than 12 first responders have died by suicide in Maine since 2016.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Mental health conversations rarely happen within the first responder community, a group particularly impacted by the pandemic.

No matter the day or hour, they are ready, never knowing what type of call they will respond to but always ready to help.

A record number of first responders got divorced during the pandemic. South Portland firefighter Liz Pfeffer is one of them. She said the pandemic didn't cause her divorce but uncovered cracks in her relationship.

Justin Robash has worked in the field for over a decade. Five of those years have been alongside Pfeffer in South Portland.

"I've been a firefighter since 2008 and got into the medical side of things, and it just sort of got into my skin in terms of wanting to be of service," Pfeffer said.

For some first responders, suicidal thoughts, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse are present. For some, other issues have developed throughout the months or years.

"I've had four friends commit suicide, and I was almost a statistic myself. If I can speak up and help one person," Robash said.

Robash is a big proponent of mental health awareness within the first responder community. He goes to different firehouses, checks on his peers or others who respond to emergencies, and speaks to first responders about the importance of speaking up. For Robash, asking for help was what saved him. Now, his goal is to help others still suffering in silence.

"And until it's zero, I guess that's why I do it," Robash expressed.

According to data from Blue HELP and Red HELP, two national organizations dedicated to helping police, fire, and EMS members deal with their mental health, more than 12 first responders have died by suicide in Maine since 2016.

For Robash and Pfeffer, help came from Amy Davenport, a licensed mental health counselor who focuses on helping people within the EMS and firefighter community.

"We are teaching coping skills; we are teaching resiliency, self-care, ways to manage that, and [how] to care for themselves and their family," Davenport said.

"I've learned to accept my emotions, not necessarily sweep them under the rug," Robash said.

“The pandemic inhibited any work-life balance anyone [in EMS] had…it changed the landscape, accelerating a situation that was already in progress," said Joseph from the Maine Board of Emergency Medical Services.

Many first responders have found assistance either individually or through programs offered by StrengthenME, a free program by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The program started during the pandemic to offer emotional first aid to help people access the tools and resources to gain wellness and build resilience for the future.

For example, this year, South Portland responded to more than 3,300 calls. Seventy-five percent of those were EMS-related calls.

Davenport said she knows the stigma keeps many from getting the help they need. She said first responders can only see so much before it starts affecting them.

"Prevention, treatment, money" are the three things Davenport said are needed to help more EMS and firefighters in Maine.

Davenport said it all comes down to money and financial resources.

“It’s been pretty grim. People are burned out. They’re leaving the field. A lot of [EMS workers] have died by suicide in the past couple of years," she said.

“A lot of Chiefs are reaching out to get resources and support for their departments—before, they were the biggest barrier," Davenport added.

“Getting involved in the peer support stuff has been extremely therapeutic for me. I want to help people … I’ve been going into departments and telling people my story," Robash said.

For more information about Davenport and her services, click here.

Here are some immediate resources for EMS/firefighters in Maine:

Professional Firefighters of Maine Peer Support Team

  • Michael Crouse, Director: (207)239-2625
  • Mike Scott, Deputy Director: [207] 576-2234
  • Amy Davenport Dakin, LCMHC, LCPC, Clinician: (207)941-0010 |(603)257-0258

Crisis Numbers:

  • Firestrong: 1-844-525-FIRE (3473)
  • Maine Crisis Team 1-888-568-1112
  • Crisis Text Line: Text Hello to 741741
  • IAFF Center of Excellence 1-833-300-3765

'Strengthen ME' is a free resource available to any Mainer battling mental health struggles due to pandemic stressors.

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