Mental health group launched for Wisconsin firefighters

MADISON — The Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association has launched a task force to help firefighters struggling with mental health issues, in the wake of the death of a Superior firefighter who took his own life.

Members of the task force will receive 40 hours of training to become peer support counselors, Jon Cohn, president of the association, told Wisconsin Public Radio . The training will help members recognize the warning signs of those struggling with mental health issues and refer them to helpful resources.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation says firefighters are three times more likely to take their own lives than die in the line of duty.

The goal is to create a statewide network to support firefighters, Cohn said.

"What we've really tried to do at the really early stages is just let people know this is a problem. They're not alone. Everyone struggles," said he. "When the struggle becomes too much, that's when we offer for them to reach out to us."

Some firefighters may avoid reaching out because of the stigma of mental illness or concerns about losing their jobs, Cohn said.

"We're obviously a very proud profession that is accustomed to helping people," he said. "When the tables are turned and now we need help, we sometimes aren't willing to reach out for that help and feel ashamed."

The Superior Fire Department is mourning the death of Erik Sutton, who recently retired as battalion chief.

"We will put his memory to work for our bravest civil servants as diligently as he put his own life to work for all of us and commit ourselves to ensuring that every firefighter and police officer in our service not only has full access to the care that they need, but that they feel the support to seek care when necessary," Superior Mayor Jim Paine said.