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We just didn’t see that coming

November 7, 2022  By Patrick J. Kenny


How many times have you heard someone say, “We just didn’t see that coming.” I’ve heard it far too often and usually relating to personal tragedy, loss, and suicide. As a speaker on mental health and suicide, I have had the honour of speaking to audiences from various backgrounds, including first responders, government leaders, mental health professionals and youth groups for more than 13 years.

Often after I speak, people share powerful and heartbreaking stories of how suicide has impacted them either personally, professionally, or both. Along with sharing their stories, they ask many great questions. What I hear far too often delivered with a sense of despair is, “Chief, they were such a great person; we just didn’t see that coming. How did we miss it? What can we do about it going forward?”

The pain of feeling you missed signals that could have saved the life of somebody you valued in whatever capacity: family, friend, or co-worker, is devastating. The simple answer about an incredibly complicated disease is that many times the signs are subtle. 

Hindsight is 20/20 and looking back, maybe there were signs such as personality and behavioural inconsistencies that were out of the ordinary for that person.

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 Communication is so critical. You won’t know to what extent the challenge is in their life unless you ask: 

  • “Is there anything I can do for you?” 
  • Or, in the case of concern about suicide, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”

What do we do if the person shares that they need help or are suicidal? In my experience, many leaders have not “pre-planned” the response to a human event the same way they have for an emergency response.

Good leaders try to think of as many possibilities as they can when they do a risk hazard analysis of their organization and community. I’ve always wondered why we don’t conduct a risk hazard analysis concerning our staff and their families. Why don’t we do human pre-planning? 

Anytime you’re leading people, whether it’s in a fire department or a factory, you know human beings run into difficult life situations. Sometimes the challenge is driven by financial difficulty, other times by health, including mental health. Look at what we as a world have gone through the past two and a half years in this pandemic. We don’t do a very good job of pre-planning the effect of those kinds of events on our people. We don’t do a risk hazard analysis of what may impact our people, whether it originates from their personal or professional life. 

Develop a Human Pre-plan

In developing a human pre-plan here are some examples of questions to consider as you evaluate the effectiveness of your plan: 

  • What is your plan to support someone after finding out their child was diagnosed with cancer? 
  • What is your plan if somebody reports one of their shift personnel is acting out of sorts suddenly?

Without a plan, people react in the moment. You may have some resources you know are available to address a particular situation, but you may not know to what extent they’re effective. Worse yet, you may not have any resources on your radar at that moment, and you wing it. There is nothing worse than “winging it” with family, co-workers, and friends when someone unexpectedly takes their life. 

So, what do I tell people who share they didn’t see a suicide coming? Remember, I am not a licensed mental health professional, just a fire chief dad who had a son die by suicide. That experience and the people who have shared their pain with me about a similar loss are the basis for this advice. I advise them to transition their approach regarding mental health and suicide to a proactive course of action aimed at education and include human pre-planning as a methodology to prepare for these serious and many times inevitable situations. 

I encourage you to develop a human pre-plan specifically addressing mental health with the same vigor that you pre-plan target hazard buildings. If not managed correctly, the potential for life loss in both situations is devastating. So, what do you consider?:

  • Assume you will have people in your organization suffering from mental health challenges, whether it is their own or someone in their family, or even in their workgroup. 
  • Have steps in place that the person can go through to mitigate the emergency based on the severity.  Plan for the simple through to the catastrophic.
  • Know what your resources are, and make sure everyone is aware of how to contact them. 
  • Consider a written standard operating procedure (SOP) that outlines those resources, when they should be contacted and by whom. Putting it in an SOP format normalizes mental health as a personal safety concern and can help to destigmatize the topic.
  • Do your homework on how effective those resources are. In other words, in the case of an Employee Assistance Program, what do they know about your organization, and what does your employees’ job description entail?
  • First responders train for the various emergencies we may see in the field with everything from fires to emergency medical calls, hazardous materials response, specialty rescue, terrorism, and now pandemics. Does mental health training in your organization include their families as well? 
  • Are your resources up to date (the roster of EAP counselors assigned to your personnel and their families) and are you familiar with their limitations (for example, how many counselor visits are covered by insurance?).
  • Does your pre-plan include long-term counseling?
  • What pre-plan do you have for addressing your own mental health? 

After you have the resources in place to handle things from the onset, make sure you also have the resources for the long term. That is an issue many organizations miss. We as leaders with our “Type A” personalities want to fix everything at that moment and move on. Mental illness is not routinely resolved that quickly.  

You can never pre-plan for everything, whether it’s an emergency or a human condition but you can have a pre-plan for most things you and your people can encounter. Those in terminal pain can be masters at hiding their suffering from you. They don’t want you to intercede for various reasons ranging from the associated stigma of having a mental illness to suicidal thoughts. Our son Sean would mask his suffering to the point of pretending he was happy to mislead his friends and family. He was determined to fool us into thinking he was doing better while at the same time planning his death by suicide. It is important to recognize that you can do everything in your power and still “not see that coming.” You can’t save everybody no matter how comprehensive your plan is. Instead, focus on what you can do. That is to prepare for the situations concerning what you and your people can be expected to encounter. 

Implement your pre-plan

If you didn’t see that coming, my challenge to you, going forward is to look at your organization, and if someone was in trouble not only have the plan developed but put it in place: 

  • Do you have a plan to address those challenges? 
  • Would everybody be trained on that plan? 
  • Would the resources be available ahead of time, for not just the individual but their family too? 
  • Would it be accessible and inviting if you’re the one that needs that help? 
  • Would you be proactive with education, not reactive with a “didn’t see it coming” moment? 

Even with the best plan, you may still experience loss and the reality is in many cases you may never know the ‘why’. It is never too late to go back after a tragedy, and instead of second-guessing what you missed, put in place proactively how to attack the problem so that loss results in saving others in the future.


Patrick J. Kenny has been a member of the fire service for 38 years and the author of the awarding-winning International Bestseller TAKING THE CAPE OFF: How to Lead Through Mental Illness, Unimaginable Grief and Loss. He has presented in multiple countries on Mayday for Mental Health and written articles on mental health, leadership, fire safety, and fire code challenges. Learn more at patrickjkenny.com/. 


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