We remain in the throes of a first responder mental health crisis.

It’s been said that the world’s problems can be solved at the firehouse kitchen table, yet we continue to lose brothers and sisters to the grips of depression, PTSD and the other usual suspects that haunt so many of us.

Some people live their entire lives without experiencing much trauma, if any at all, and to that I say, “good for them!”  On the opposite end of that spectrum is where so many of us can be found.  As first responders, we see and experience so many terrible things that were never really intended for us to process as humans, let alone on a recurring basis: call after call, shift after shift, year after year.

To boot, we’re not simply there as spectators, in fact we are trained and called upon to mitigate these awful situations- to be unflappable and professional, even compassionate- regardless of what goes down, as it’s all in the course of our chosen vocation.  That’s right, we chose this.  Many of us have even competed fiercely as one of several candidates to earn a coveted spot to serve as a firefighter.  After all, it is the greatest job in the world!

The reasons we choose this profession are many, and often very personal and compelling.  A friend of mine from the job, we’ll call him Jack, was one of the most talented medics I have ever had the privilege of working with, hands-down.  Jack had a theory that ‘somewhere within ourselves we are all caregivers’ and that attribute was the through-line that brought us together as first responders and other medical professionals.  I’ve always thought that was pretty insightful.

He and I ran lots of calls together. Some were certainly tragic and unforgettable, others not so much.  The latter, truth be told, is mostly what we encounter on the job.  Still, in a cumulative sense, those runs can and do contribute to the wear and tear on our psyches and our general sense of well being.  No matter what, we have to remember that we didn’t start the proverbial fire and that we are there when called upon to do good, to be of service and to effectuate the most positive outcome we can.  Dealing with some of the stuff we do is just the price of admission for the job, right?

Don’t get me wrong, Jack and I worked at a busy house with a few crews and we all had lots of laughs and great times.  He was a respected medic and was known well beyond our department.  Among his many talents, he could nail an intubation under the most challenging of circumstances. He trained other medics along the way and always exemplified wisdom, calm and confidence.  Years later, tragically and very sadly, Jack succumbed to his own emotional demons.  It was an unspeakable loss.

What happened these past couple of weeks at Marion County (FL) Fire is no less unspeakable, once again, underscoring the importance of addressing first responder mental health.   It was after watching this video that I felt the need to start banging away at my keyboard.

“Thoughts and prayers” just don’t cut it.

First responder mental health

When it comes to having each other’s backs, mental health is no exception

Much respect for Chief Banta for stepping up the way that he has and getting his message out.  With hope, it’s a message that will resonate throughout the fire service, the first responder community as a whole and well beyond.  First responder mental health initiatives continue to expand, and for great reason.

I heard somewhere that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  Think about that.  Words to emblazon in our minds for those times- and I hope you NEVER, EVER find yourself there- when it seems to be the only thing that will make the pain go away.  This, too shall pass is an adage that has withstood the test of time because it’s TRUE.

OK, time to re-calibrate here.  I am definitely not a mental health professional, nor am I qualified to give mental health advice, and you probably don’t want it from me anyway.  Who I am is someone who cares about other people and tries to be as understanding and empathetic as I can be, especially toward the plights of others.

The emotional stress that comes with being a firefighter, a cop, a medic/ EMS, a service member… it’s real.  Pushing it down is not the answer. Drinking and drugging- still (and definitely) not the answer.  The rates of substance abuse, divorce and suicide are disproportionately high in our world, but they don’t need to be at all.  There are countless healthy approaches to dealing with the stresses of the job.

For starters, think of the “clean as you go” method.  Don’t let things accumulate.  In this spirit, talk it out, work it out as soon as you can. Start right now.  If you’ve already accumulated, not to worry.  That can be “cleaned up”, too!

As a former firefighter, both volunteer and career, I have a deep connection with first responder community, always have.  With my experience also comes a first hand understanding of the mental health toll that being a first responder can take on someone.  Like so many of us, I have seen it in friends and co-workers.

Having had my own experience with PTSD, I can tell you this:  there is no clearly defined mold, size or shape.  It’s an insidious thing.  Some people end up getting triggered by certain sights, sounds, thoughts… whatever.  It can manifest as anxiety, depression, a propensity toward alcohol or drugs, anger, unusual behaviors, relationship issues, you name it.  Some people may be attuned to the underpinnings of these issues, while others motor through without a clue.

For me, it wasn’t cut and dry at all and I dismissed whatever I may have felt at any given time for years- decades, actually- despite having had a proper diagnosis.  I think of it now like a virus that infected a computer and was running in the background.  The computer seemed to be running OK, but sometimes, usually without explanation or warning. something just wasn’t right.  So many of us have felt that at one point or another, so why be alarmed about it?  Maybe just a glitch.  Whatever… I’ve got this, moving on.

It wasn’t until one night when alcohol, sadness and worry turned into rage, and then a sense of calm -#WTF- albeit short-lived.  What’s this about?  This wasn’t “me.”  Suddenly, I felt everything I loved slipping through my fingers. That’s when I really knew once and for all that it was time to take a deeper dive.  It was time to figure this out.  And, thank God, I did.  I asked around and was referred to a lady who I now call an angel on earth.

Among other titles she holds, she is a chaplain and was really easy for me to connect with. For me, the connection piece was paramount.  She specializes in helping people: service members, first responders and, yes, John Q. Publics who are carrying around different types of emotional trauma.  Almost immediately after we started working together, I felt as if I was shedding layers of weighted jackets that I didn’t even realize I’d been wearing, one at a time.  Let me tell you, it was eye opening and it absolutely changed my life.

Like so many other things in our lives that we put off- and put off… for a moment I asked myself why I hadn’t done this sooner.  As someone who believes that everything happens for a reason, I quickly knew in my heart that it all happened exactly the way it was supposed to. There is no time like the present for healing to begin.

Her methodology included neurofeedback which uses sounds to help “rewire” parts of the brain, prayer, breathing exercises and micro-doses of psilocybin. I won’t get further into details here because 1. I don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to the science and 2. what works for one person may not work for another.  Besides, this isn’t about me at all.  I only share this with the hope that it becomes the impetus for others to take that first crucial step toward healing, no matter how much clean-up it may entail.

The takeaway here is that no matter what, no matter how insurmountable or hopeless something seems, no matter how right it may feel to do all of the wrong things, help and hope are always right there for us.  Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but really a sign of courage, strength and wisdom.

Back in the day, I remember getting off shift at 0730 hrs and meeting up with some of the guys down the street from the station in the library parking lot and we  talked about calls we’d run while downing a case of beer… not exactly what we think of as group therapy nowadays.  In retrospect, it’s crazy to me, but that’s what we did.  Thankfully, it’s way different today.

I’ve been off the line for several years now and I am incredibly grateful for the cultural shift when it comes to mental health awareness for first responders.  There are countless resources available, starting with the guy or gal right next to you.  Talk it up, put it out there.  You’ve already done much tougher things.  You can do it however it works for YOU, but DO it.  And know that you’re never, ever alone.

And if you think someone may need some help, please help them get it.  Emotions are real, but they don’t rule us.  If I can help you in any way, just hit me up here!  Please, be safe, be healthy and feel good- and ask for help whenever you need it!

Strength and bravery are with in you, and from my heart I wish you much peace and joy…