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‘Reach out for help’ family urges after Henrico firefighter’s death

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- As the Henrico County community and firefighters around Richmond mourn the sudden death of firefighter Kevin O'Connell, his family wanted to share an important message -- "reach out for help."

O'Connell, a husband and father of two, took his own life Tuesday afternoon.

The veteran firefighter was having trouble processing the horrors he saw as a part of his job, according to a public goodbye he posted on social media.

It was an issue his family addressed Thursday in an open letter posted on social media and shared by the Henrico County Division of Fire.

"Our wishes are for others who may be suffering in silence to reach out for help!" the letter read. "Please don't ever feel that you are alone. As well, if you see or suspect others may be dealing with more than they can handle, please reach out to them. Sometimes there are no obvious red flags or warning signs."

O'Connell had been a firefighter for 11 years. He was assigned to Station 22 in Innsbrook.

"His life was joyous as a devoted husband and father. His sixteen-year marriage to his wife and his life with their two sons were his world. He loved them and couldn't stand to be away from them, but his pain became too overwhelming," his family shared. "He loved playing golf with his dad and he loved his firefighter family. Fire and EMS was a job he loved, but it unknowingly caused him enormous pain and suffering."

Jason Elmore, a pastor and chaplain for Chesterfield Fire and EMS, said the painful loss reinforced the need for more conversation about depression among first responders.

"That's why peer-to-peer support teams in fire and EMS departments across our area are so important,” Elmore explained. “We want to let people know you are not weak for asking for help. In fact, you're strong for reaching out and understanding that there is an issue that needs to be taken care of."

Ames Hart, with the Virginia Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, reminded people to be aware when talking to friends and loved ones.

"The biggest thing we can do when we know someone is having a difficult time is listen. So take the time to find out, what is it is going on right now that has brought you to this place," Hart said. "Talking to a friend can be a powerful thing."

Henrico County manager John Vithoulkas requested the county flag lowered at all county facilities in O’Connell's memory.

"Our family would like to thank the community and our extended public safety family as we begin to grieve for our loving son, brother, husband, father, and friend. While our grief is just beginning, we are uplifted to know that we have the support of so many," the O’Connell family wrote. "Thank you for remembering our loving Kevin as a strong family man and servant to those who needed his help in their time of need. His service to his community will not be forgotten."

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