New program strives to make sure first responders in crisis are ‘Here Tomorrow’

Police, firefighters more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – When we call 911 for help, our first responders don’t hesitate to react. They put their lives in danger every day and often see the worst of the worst. But who’s there for them in their time of need?

From fires to car crashes to medical emergencies and shootings, our first responders see it all and while they are there to help, these situations are stressful and dangerous, which can take a toll on them.

Thirty percent of first responders develop some sort of mental health problem during their careers that can lead to PTSD, depression, substance abuse and even suicide. So far this year, there have been 26 reported first responder suicides — four of those first responders lived in Florida.

But now there’s a program in North Florida called Here Tomorrow that’s using first responders’ own peers — who’ve been there and know how to spot the signs — to help heroes in crisis.

The frightening fact is this: our police and firefighters are more likely to die from suicide than in the line of duty. The Department of Health estimates up to 300 take their own lives every year. The numbers could actually be higher — as there is no real database tracking this tragedy.

Brannon Hicks spent years in law enforcement, and it almost cost him his life.

“I’ve been there myself. I’ve dealt with suicidality. I was far too close to making the decision and got pulled back at the last minute,” said Hicks.

Brannon Hicks spent years in law enforcement, and it almost cost him his life. (WJXT)

“What was it that saved you?” we asked.

“A text from my daughter,” Hicks answered. “I had my gun on my right leg. I had my phone on my left leg. I had made the decision, and I got a text from my daughter that said, ‘Hey, Daddy,’ and it bought me some seconds.”

“And you were able to get help from there?” we asked.

“I was, and it was a struggle,” he answered. “It is much easier now than when I was looking for help.”

To make it even more personal, Hicks lost his son, Tyler, to suicide, so now he is on the front lines once again — but in a different capacity. He’s a big part of the Here Tomorrow peer-to-peer program to help other first responders.

Tyler Hicks died by suicide (Photo provided)

Essentially, Hicks has been trained to help counsel those who are struggling — and he’s good at it because he’s been there and understands what first responders are going through. And research shows this program works.

“Our first responders see the good, the bad and the ugly every single day, and that repetition — with one traumatic event after another — that build up over time,” explained Dr. Christine Cauffield. “They are just plagued with these memories, these flashbacks, these images.”

Cauffield is helping pioneer the program through 20 counties in North Florida. Her nonprofit, LSF Health Systems, got a $1.8 million grant from the state, and now anyone in crisis can call 211 or 988 to get connected to someone like Brannon Hicks — a peer who can listen and understand what they’re going through.

Dr. Christine Cauffield with LSF Health Systems is helping pioneer a program for first responders. (WJXT)

“They reported that although they had reached out at times to a clinical psychologist, for example, or a licensed social worker, they felt like they had to do so much explaining about what their work environment was like,” Cauffield explained.

Everyone we spoke with says the Here Tomorrow program is making a difference. Since the grant’s inception:

Peer specialists get 144 hours of training like stress management, suicide assessment, self-care strategies and more.

Maj. Scott Surrency, who’s in charge of the jail in Putnam County, has been trained in peer support — something he wishes he had when he was struggling himself. Corrections officers see an even higher rate of mental health issues and suicide than police and firefighters.

Maj. Scott Surrency, who’s in charge of the jail in Putnam County, has been trained in peer support. (WJXT)

“What’s it been like having the men and women of your department come to you and say, ‘Hey, look, we can just talk,’” we asked?

“It’s really humbling to have someone be comfortable enough to reach out to ask for advice, just to share kind of what’s going on in their life,” Surrency answered. “But the difference is, the peer support personnel have special training that makes them a little more prepared to deal with some of the specific stressors and then know when to pass it off to a professional.”

“What’s next? What do you want to see in the future?” we asked.

“For mental health to be just as much a part of the conversation as physical health, as nutrition,” Surrency said.

The Here Tomorrow program continues to grow, and they’re hiring more peer support specialists — from police officers to medical professionals to soldiers — and LSF hopes the state of Florida will allocate more money to keep it going. Find out more information here if you would like to get involved to help our heroes.

About the Authors:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.