Francis Pagurek has lost three colleagues to suicide during his tenure as a first responder in New Jersey. Had they asked for help, he says, maybe he could have intervened in some way.

But suicidal thoughts, along with most mental health issues, aren't common topics of discussion between workers in the emergency services field.

And that's what needs to change, according to Pagurek, who serves as chief of Gloucester Township's EMS.

"I think we've done a poor job in communicating to our employees how important their mental health is," Pagurek told New Jersey 101.5.

He hopes a newly-formed nonprofit will shine a light on the issue of mental health risks among emergency medical technicians and police and fire personnel, and erase the attached stigma.

Mission Hope NJ was created by Pine Hill resident Eric Hicken along with his wife and son with the purpose of providing New Jersey's emergency service providers with "a place to go" when the stresses of the job become too difficult to bear.

Eric Hicken, founder of Mission Hope NJ
Eric Hicken (left), founder of Mission Hope NJ, with his son Ian Eddy. (Photo provided by Eric Hicken)

"When you think about it, 20 years of seeing death and dying and high-stress situations, it has a toxic effect on you," said Hicken, who has worked in the field for 30 years. "Some people don't cope so easily."

As part of Mission Hope NJ, emergency service personnel are provided with a single point of contact who's available 24/7 to lead them to the resources they may need during low points or crisis situations. And through the "Two Crisis We Go" program, the sufferer always has a helping hand on call.

"We've had people reach out to us and say, 'This is exactly what we need,'" Hicken said.

The nonprofit, just a month in operation, is holding its second informational meeting 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Berlin Intercommunity Ambulance Association. First responders, friends and family are encouraged to attend.

"Essentially it's time to rescue the rescuer," Hicken added. "That's kind of our motto."

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