When I was a kid, my mom worked for Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) She worked at a state park, first as a camp attendant, checking people in and out. But eventually, working every weekend with kids away at college and a newlywed daughter with two young sons who visited only on weekends got old. She also hated missing church. So she applied to a maintenance position that had opened and she had the seniority for first choice, that allowed her to work Monday through Friday.
My mom’s post-high school education consisted of a beauty school certificate from the 1960’s. This was an opportunity she didn’t want to pass up. Unfortunately, the men in charge let her know they didn’t want her. A maintenance job was for men, and they had their guy picked already. Thankfully, my mom was in the union. And a very active member, a steward, representing her peers regularly at meetings and speaking up for what they believed was right. And it was her seniority, and their backing, that assured she was put in the position that she longed for and rightly deserved. I didn’t know what I was watching back then in the 1990’s, but I’m grateful my mom had a union that backed her and didn’t allow sexism to override her ability to be with her family. And my mom hustled in that job and proved them all wrong about what whe was capable of doing.
Fast forward twenty plus years, and I’m still a union kid. But today, my union affiliation comes through my work as a therapist. I work closely with the state and international unions for the fire service, Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters and the International Association of Fire Fighters.
It’s been an honor to work with them, among them, and beside them to fight for the mental health care they so desperately need, and reduce the stigma that exists internally. I proudly don a union sticker on my car. I’ve seen the battles up close, I’ve heard about them both around the station house dinner table, the conference table, and within the sanctuary of my office. The fight for safety is real, and I saw first hand while attending the 100 year celebration of the Local I most closely serve.
I am very grateful to be attending the National Fallen Fire Fighters Memorial this week, both because it is a man on that wall that brought me into this world when he lost his life in the line of duty and I get to honor him, and because the men and women of the IAFF have an immense power to change the culture within fire stations to enhance the well being of those they serve when it comes to mental health. The same power I saw as a child when my mom needed protection from the unjust intentions of those who employed her.
So this union kid is about to set out this week to spend time with the families and brothers and sisters in fire of those who have been lost this past year and years before. 271 names will go on the wall, joining so many, too many, more. My goal in this work, is to make sure those names represent as few as possible of those who felt like their only way out was to die by suicide. And to make sure those who survive those lost to this wall know that treatment is available and recovery is possible.