LOUISVILLE, Ky. — First responders witness death, grief, injury, and loss on a daily basis, on top of already physically and mentally demanding schedules. They include our law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical services (EMS) clinicians, and public safety telecommunicators.
Today, they’re falling into depression and taking their lives at a higher rate than the general public, and for firefighters and police officers, that number is higher than the line of duty deaths in each profession.
“When I was asked, ‘Why do you want to be a fireman?’ Well, I want to help people on their worst day,” Maj. Cody Burd with Buechel Fire and EMS said. “The scenes that we see, the things that go through our mind, it’s not normal for us to see that. You do it because you see something bigger than yourself. Well, we’re finding out there are prices to be paid for doing that.”
As said in The Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders, “there are several barriers that prevent first responders from accessing mental health services, including shame and stigma. These same barriers prevent families from talking openly about the suicide of a loved one, thereby contributing to silence and lack of awareness around the issue of first responder suicide.”
Jo Terry is working to change this.
“I am not a clinician. I’m a widow,” she said.
Her husband, Chip Terry, was a career firefighter for three decades, and like so many first responders, struggled in silence with the trauma he’d witnessed.
“This is such a crushing mental health problem, that they feel so hopeless,” Terry said.
Chip was the assistant fire chief for Covington Fire, in Northern Kentucky. He retired in 2012. Speaking to a crowd of his colleagues, his speech was filled with the nightmares of the job:
“There’s a lot of talk about our benefits and pay and all those types of things, but what people don’t see at three o’clock in the morning is when a young lieutenant has to put two toddlers and their grandmother in a body bag. I’ve been personally involved in 12 fire fatalities, not to mention the thousands and thousands and thousands of runs I’ve made over 27 years. You know, a 16-year-old boy hangs himself with an electrical cord. How do you close your eyes at night after you make that run? I’ve seen people shoot themselves in the head. I’ve seen children beaten and burned. We are the tip of the spear. We are the people out there every day.”
“Today, I can lay down in bed and close my eyes and still see the faces of those toddlers, or the 4-year-old boy I put in a body bag after he drowned in a pool. I can see that. I’ll carry that with me for the rest of my life.”
In 2017, Chip diagnosed himself with PTSD, and checked into a psychiatric hospital in Cincinnati for suicidal thoughts.
“Instead of treating him for trauma, they treated him for substance abuse, mainly alcohol,” Terry said.
He was prescribed nine weeks of outpatient therapy. Days later, Chip bought a gun and took his own life, leaving behind a letter explaining why:
“The final story is I have lived a good life in spite of myself. I have brought into this world and helped raise wonderful children and a grandchild. All of them will go on to great things, but I can’t take the chance of allowing my worsening mental issues to ruin that .So, when you find me, know it wasn’t depression that pushed me over the edge and I didn’t relapse into alcohol addiction. That isn’t what brought me to this point. Like many people who suffer from cancer and other life-threatening diseases, some people suffer from equally debilitating mental illness, which in the end is equally terminal. God bless you all and God save my soul.”
It’s an emotional moment for Terry, as she reads this excerpt of her husband’s suicide note to a crowded room of firefighters and police officers. It’s part of the training she gives to first responders about their mental health and the therapies available to them, like EMDR therapy.
“This doesn’t have to be fatal,” Terry said. “These individuals who are accomplishing suicide, they’re not thinking clearly, but we know now the mental health community has ways to treat that and we can see a reversal of some of the damage done to the brain, so they can lead happy, normal lives.”
She spent three days in Louisville last week, at the Buechel Fire Department, talking to first responders from across the state. She always leaves time for questions or comments. Some crowds are more talkative than others.
“After I leave and we’re all gone, somebody reaches out and says, hey, that sounded like me. What do I do?” Terry said.
She’s helped save couples from divorce and on more than one occasion, saved a life. She gets calls from firefighters, EMTs and police officers, if not, their spouses, asking for help.
“I’ve had several with guns in their hands,” Terry said.
She says a first responder from Louisville was one of them.
“He said, ‘I had the gun and I saw your face, and it made me stop for just that second. And then I thought of my kids and how your kids are dealing with their loss,’ and he said, ‘I couldn’t do that to them,'” Terry said.
“Luckily we’re seeing more individuals reach out before they become critical,” she said.
As she ends her hour-long course, Terry looks at each of the men and women in the room: “There’s no reason why you as first responders need to carry these burdens. You are entitled to a happy and healthy life, a retirement and so is your family.”
Firefighter Aaron Dossey, with Fern Creek Fire, has a wife and 2-year-old daughter at home.
“Having been in the military myself, I’ve seen it firsthand, the effects of PTSD. Obviously, I don’t want to take that back home to them,” Dossey said. “The stigma of, we just have to put it behind us and we’re tough and have to go to the next run is changing for the better.”
Other local first responders gave similar responses about how they struggle with mental health.
“If you don’t talk about it, that’s how it builds up. You see it in the military, police, fire, EMS,” Lucas Alden, with the Camp Taylor Fire District said.
“I think we’re getting better. Are we where we need to be? No,” Maj. Burd said. “You just gotta be able to process and express it in a healthy way.”
“You don’t ever want to trigger something to happen, but what you want to trigger, is hey, it’s okay to talk about this,” Fire Chief Adam Jones, with Buechel Fire and EMS said.
Jo Terry and her daughter, Michaela, host these courses on PTSD for free and at the request of departments across the country. They only ask you to donate to the Chip Terry Fund for First Responders, which allows them to continue their efforts.