Chris McKenna is a 7-year volunteer firefighter who struggled with post-traumatic stress from the job to the point where he considered suicide. He’s now researching firefighter PTSD and taking his story public to help break the stigma of firefighter mental health.
McKenna, with the Vigilant Hose Company in Emmitsburg, told NBC Washington that he still suffers from nightmares and flashbacks from the horrors he’s seen on the job.
“In the fire service, we think of ourselves as the superheroes,” he said. “Nothing can hurt us. We’ve got this gear that we can go into burning buildings with, all this training that we can do things that normal people can’t do.”
It was Fairfax County (Va.) firefighter Nicole Mittendorf’s suicide that pushed McKenna to seek help.
“When that happened, when she went missing, there was the talk, at first, ‘Is this mental health related?’ because that was the big topic in the fire service at the time,” he told NBC Washington. “And I started thinking what was going through her mind when she committed suicide.”
McKenna interviewed firefighters from across the country on mental health and PTSD as part of his research for his college thesis.
“I want people to know that mental health in the fire service is OK,” McKenna said. “There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. With the sights that we see every day, it’s OK to have nightmares about it. It’s normal. The brain isn’t going to be able to see something traumatic and just turn it off.”
If you need help, here are some confidential hotlines for firefighters.
Fire/EMS Helpline: 1-888-731-FIRE (3473)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)