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CAL FIRE Captain's widow focuses on suicide awareness after husband's death

Capt. Ryan Mitchell took his life Nov. 2017
Posted at 4:59 PM, Oct 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-22 21:16:59-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- It has been nearly two years since Denelle Mitchell’s husband took his own life.

CAL FIRE Captain Ryan Mitchell died by suicide on November 5, 2017, at the Interstate 8 Pine Valley bridge. Denelle Mitchell did not want to talk about the day it happened, but the emotions she dealt with in the days and months after his death are hard to forget.

“One of the first feelings I felt was ashamed or embarrassed at the type of way that he died,” Denelle Mitchell said. “It comes and goes in waves of being mad or sad.”

Her husband was dedicated to his job — a job that was his passion.

“He loved the acts of fighting fires. He loved the community… the brotherhood and sisterhood that they had,” Denelle said.

But there were difficult days. “What comes with that is a lot of hard work, a lot of hours away from your home and your family and your friends.”

What wasn’t obvious to many were struggles behind the scenes.

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“He did talk about his depression quite a bit and I lived it with him. I was there with him when we were going through some really hard times,” Denelle said. “Marriage can be hard, owning a home and renovating a home can be hard, having a kid — that’s a lot of life stresses.”

There were also tough times at work.

“The fire seasons were getting longer and harder,” she said. “There’s days where as a firefighter wife, they come home and they just are so exhausted — mentally, physically, and emotionally drained."

The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance recorded 98 firefighter and EMT suicides so far this year. Jeff Dill, the founder of FBHA, said the number this year is on track to be higher than 2018. In 2018, there were 108 suicides. In 2017, the number was 120. A study by the Ruderman Family Foundation said depression among firefighters is nearly double the general population. Firefighters and police are at higher risk for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide, according to the study.

Denelle now focuses on raising their son, Aiden. She encourages loved ones to pay attention to those who may be struggling.

“Don’t just let it go by the wayside. Don’t take no for an answer… try to research the signs,”Denelle said.

Locally and statewide, action has been taken to ensure resources are available for first responders. Recently, the County Board of Supervisors approved the Captain Ryan J. Mitchell First Responder Behavioral Health Program, which will offer confidential mental and behavior health support by connecting first responders with a clinical professional.

The governor also signed several bills that focus on improving protections for the state’s firefighters and first responders when it comes to mental health. AB 1116 (the California Firefighter Peer Support and Crisis Referral Services Act) establishes statewide standards for peer support programs. SB 542 (the Trauma Treatment Act) will provide “first responders with workers’ compensation while they recover from their mental health scars,” according to a news release from the governor’s office.

“Bringing awareness to the topic makes it easier to talk about,” Denelle said.

She said she is grateful that she did not have to go through this process alone. “I wanted to thank all our friends and family for the support, especially the Cal Fire community, Local 2881, and Chief Patrick Walker,” Denelle told Team 10. She is now raising money for suicide prevention awareness, This Saturday, she will be participating in the Out of the Darkness San Diego Walk, supporting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

To donate to her cause, click here.

If you or anyone you know needs help, the crisis number is 888-724-7240.