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Company Officer Leadership: The Elephant in the Firehouse - Depression and Post-Traumatic Stress

The behavioral health of firefighters and fire officers seems to be a topic at the forefront of every information medium available to the fire service. Whether it be one of myriad social-media platforms or an infomercial touting the latest in mental-health therapy in an exotic location, each of us is inundated with opportunities for help and healing.

While many of these sources may be helpful, most appear to be modern day snake-oil salesmen, offering an all-encompassing elixir that will do little to help, let alone heal.

My name is Chris; I’m a lieutenant in the Clifton, New Jersey, Fire Department. I’m a paramedic and a veteran of the U.S. Navy. And I have depression and post-traumatic stress.

I don’t refer to it as a disorder, and I certainly no longer suffer from it. It’s as much a part of me as my family, my career and my penchant for helping others recognize the burden we all carry as a side effect of our chosen vocation.

Sentinel events can be described as those that have a lasting effect on our emotional, psychological and behavioral health. As firefighters, fire officers, paramedics and EMTs, we experience these events during our routine and our not-so-routine responses. The stressors experienced during our tours have a cumulative effect on our behavioral wellbeing, whether we realize it or not—often culminating in innumerable self-destructive behaviors.

My own self-destructive behaviors (in no particular order) have included many affairs, a divorce (and almost a second), having been disciplined at work, depression and suicidal ideations.

All of this in full view of family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances and neighbors, none of whom took the time to ask me if I was okay or to offer help.

Following yet another sentinel event, I found myself literally on the edge of suicide, staring at an emptiness beneath me that I simultaneously wanted to embrace and ignore. Ignoring the pain did nothing to make it go away; it simply made it worse.

I have taken several courses over my career geared towards assisting first responders in understanding the signs of depression, PTSD and suicidal ideations in our fellow first responders. In my opinion, these courses, while meaning well, fall tragically short of the mark. The notion of first-responder behavioral health needs to be introspective, not focused on the member sitting across the kitchen table.

It needs to be focused on the member in the mirror.

Research has shown group discussions, in the form of crisis intervention, does little to help members and does nothing to prevent first-responder suicide, the third leading cause of death for firefighters. Several recent high-profile, first-responder suicides highlight this point.

I’m alive today because I decided I needed to get help.

My work habits had changed, I stopped doing my routine at work, I was visibly depressed and emotionally lost, yet no one asked me if I was alright. No one.

It’s time to elevate the conversation!

I have a plan and I have a note, but I also have a therapist and a loving wife who understands how my past experiences, both personally and professionally, have adversely affected me, and she continues to be my crutch. I know as I type this that I’m not alone, and I want each person reading this to understand that asking for help is a sign of leadership, not weakness.

There are several programs available to first responders; the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance and Safe Call Now are two I have personal experience with and that have significantly helped me to slowly, yet deliberately, step back from that edge.

It’s not easy to open myself up like this, but I find it to be not only necessary but cathartic. Please seek the help you need, as I did. I’m humbled to share this with you, my fellow fire officers, in the hope that you’ll seek help also!

I’m including my personal contact information below, should anyone reading this wish to speak to me and share their story. Let’s elevate the conversation together!

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