CINCINNATI (FOX19) – The widow of a Tri-State firefighter is doing everything she can to improve awareness and sensitivity on issues of mental health among first responders.
The trauma faced by police officers, firefighters and other emergency responders is significant. It also accumulates over the course of a career, mostly building slowly across innumerable runs, but sometimes leaping forward with one horrifying incident.
Jo Terry knows first-hand the toll of post-traumatic stress. Her husband, Chip Terry was a firefighter of 26 years. He died by suicide in 2017,
“He loved being a public servant,” Jo told FOX19 NOW on Monday, which was First Responders Appreciation Day in Ohio.
She says Chip started sharing his feelings in 2012 during an impassioned retirement speech.
“What people do not see at three o’clock in the morning,” Chip said, “is when a young lieutenant has to put two toddlers and a grandmother in a body bag. Today, when I lay down and sleep at night, I can still see the faces of those toddlers, or a 4-year old that I had to put in a body bag after drowning in a pool. I carry that with me. I will see that the rest of my life.”
Jo says Chip had trouble coping with what he termed his “demons.”
Fire Chief Mark Pierce knew Chip since high school and worked with him for decades both as a firefighter and outside the department. He says in the early days of his career, firefighters didn’t give much thought to the impact of the trauma they regularly experienced.
“We really didn’t think a lot about, you know, PTSD,” he said. “Whatever label you want to put on it, we just considered it part of the job.”
Experts call PTSD a crisis in the profession.
Depression and PTSD affect 30 percent of the nation’s first responders. Thirty-seven percent have contemplated suicide, a rate nearly 10-times the national average. Nearly seven percent of first responders attempt suicide, a rate 13-times normal.
Chip sought medical attention after having suicidal thoughts, but PTSD treatment was not recommended.
“I thought, as a medical professional myself, how did this happen?” Jo said.
Eventually, Jo’s grief turned to action. After Chip’s death, she started learning about PTSD and formed the Chip Terry Fund with a mission to educate, help and offer key resources so no family will have to go through what she did.
“I said, ‘We can’t we can’t let that happen again,’” Jo said.
No Jo travels across the country, hosting seminars and offering departments the resources they need on how to address mental health. She has even been called in as a last resort, the first call coming three months after she started her work.
“I’ve had five people reach out who have had guns in their hands,” she said. “I’ve had spouses reach out saying, ‘What do I do? How do I help them?’” Jo said. “We’ve had over 15 individuals that we’ve helped get into an inpatient facility. We’ve had over 30 that we’ve helped connect to local resources.”
Pierce credits Jo for making mental health a focus at his department.
“I think good leaders worry about their people when you want to get them whatever help they need for whatever they’re dealing with,” Pierce said. “And Jo and the Terry Foundation, the Terry family have been an awesome resource for us as far as finding things or organizations or people that we can talk to you to help us get through, you know, this mental part of it that has become part of the job.”
Jo says she witnesses the impact of her work first hand.
“I see it in the faces, the first responders when I teach it, you know, they’re all there for a reason,” she said. “They’re their public servants. This is what they’re called to do. And they help people every day, and they’re the last ones to reach out for help. So when they do, we, as a community, better be able to give them what they need.”