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Editor's Note
by Rick Markley, editor-in-chief

PTSD, like cancer, is quietly killing firefighters

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and other mental illnesses are not signs of weak or immoral firefighters; they are job-related illnesses that require treatment

By Rick Markley, FR1 Editor-in-chief

One of the marks of good writing is the level of authenticity that comes through the piece. And Kelly Grayson's column is about as authentic as you can get.

If you missed it, Grayson courageously discusses his own battle with depression. It is difficult enough to admit your problems to yourself, let alone share them with hundreds of thousands of readers.

His piece is a reminder that — much like the carcinogens that are collecting in our bodies, slowly and quietly building cancerous cells — mental illness will eat away at us if left unchecked.

In fact, the parallels between firefighter cancer and mental illness are pretty eerie. There's the denial on our part of the threat from both and the difficulty making a direct link from firefighting to each.

The real challenge is finding a fix to the mental-health problem. The sooner we can do it, the better — but, it won't come easy.

As Grayson demonstrated, just admitting that it's normal to be abnormal is a huge hurdle for firefighters and medics alike. The stigma that mental illness is a weakness, a lack of character, or both needs to be buried. It simply isn't true.

After that, we can begin to help ourselves and those we serve with.

The other big hurdle will be convincing insurers and employers that these illnesses are a direct product of the job.

The Fraternal Order of Police is pushing to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder covered by workers' compensation. There have been some small successes with similar efforts, like in Connecticut.

But where there's money, there are problems. Pushback for treating mental illness as work-related centers on how will it be paid for and how bogus claims will be sifted out.

I'm a proponent of fiscal responsibility. But when lives are on the line, our leaders need to get them help first and fine-tune the process later.

There's a ticker on the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance homepage that tallies the number of firefighter suicides reported to that group. It is unsettling, especially when you consider how many go unreported.

Not all firefighters with mental health issues take their own lives. Some end up divorced, addicted to drugs or alcohol, or hiding their problems and retreating to dark and lonely places — as Kelly Grayson did.

We owe it to ourselves, our families, our fellow firefighters and even those we serve to acknowledge this issue and get help for those who need it.

The comments below are member-generated and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its staff. If you cannot see comments, try disabling privacy and ad blocking plugins in your browser. All comments must comply with our Member Commenting Policy.
Timothy O'Hara Casey Timothy O'Hara Casey Monday, May 19, 2014 8:24:40 PM I really was grateful to Chief Tommy at that moment. But at the moment he jerked me off the truck cause I stunk of booze and called Chief Roger I wasnít and neither were the boys at 8ís. Following my departure I have heard that Chief Tommy began to take the subtle flack that firefighters are so good at delivering and it is subtle. Most of the time no one comes right up and gets in your face. Itís a shunning. So when you walk into a kitchen in the morning to get a cup and hang out with the crew you will find yourself all alone in just a matter of seconds. One by one they move off or in groups of two or three. Nothing overt, no one announces ďHey Iím not drinking coffee with this ass, letís go.Ē No, they just drift away and there you sit. So how does this pertain to Chief Tommy? Well he might be a chief, but in the firehouse the chief officer is still just a man one of the guys. They must be respected for their rank and responded to professionally but you donít as a firefighter have to keep them company during down time. If you are being shunned you know it and it is a very uncomfortable 24 hours or 48 or 72 hours however long the punishment lasts. A chief is mobile and can just get in their fire SUV and go somewhere else, but this was a big event, maybe the first time a guy had been yanked out of a station and disappeared. So wherever Chief Tommy went he got it. At first I thought right on, serves him right. You may wonder why he was getting treated badly for what he had done, well this all happened during a time of migration for the fire department. Migration from old school to the world of political correctness and law suits. In days past if I guy showed up hung over it was no big deal. Let him get something to eat have a nap and by lunch he was right as rain. Or if a guy showed up in real bad shape like I had, you just sent him home and put him off sick. The results of my blood alcohol test that day showed I was at a .02 that isnít even considered under the influence, you wonít even get a ticket for driving with that level of alcohol. So why not send me home? Okay letís say that is what Chief Tommy had decided to do, send me home. On the way home I am involved in a wreck, no big deal I wasnít under the influence. But the accident is my fault and the cops test me, .02 Iím cool. But this becomes evidence in a court action and guess what else becomes evidence? Yeah I had just been sent home from the fire station. So the city and Chief Tommy and the whole department gets sued and it becomes a national news story and careers and lives get destroyed, because that is what alcoholics do, we screw up. So it was on me to try and let people know what Chief Tommy did was a good thing. Not in the sense of avoiding possible legal action down the road. No in that what he did saved my life and they needed to know that, they needed to understand how far out of control I had gotten. How my depression had pushed me back toward suicide again. I stopped by 8ís and had a cup with the boys. I couldnít just say hey get off the chiefís back; I had to weave it into the conversation, I had to take it back on me. It was my actions that day that put this thing in motion, not his. I told how drunk I had gotten the night before and how I had debated just calling off sick myself. I wanted to be a cautionary tale. My father had always said you can still serve as a good example by being a bad example and that I had done in style. The result of all this was I had to go to a meeting with The Chief, the Big. The man that had tried to get me help all those years ago at 1ís, the guy that had given me a last chance contract six years earlier following my suicide attempt. A guy I really liked and still do. The book Alcoholics Anonymous puts it this way about what we do when drinking. "The alcoholic is like a tornado roaring his way through the lives of others. Hearts are broken. Sweet relationships are dead. Affections have been uprooted. Selfish and inconsiderate habits have kept the home in turmoil. We feel a man is unthinking when he says that sobriety is enough. He is like the farmer who came up out of his cyclone cellar to find his home ruined. To his wife, he remarked, "Don't see anything the matter here, Ma. Ain't it grand the wind stopped blowin'?" -- "Alcoholics Anonymous" (AA's Big Book) Chapter 6, 'Into Action,' pg. 82 I really didnít want to meet with this man, not out of fear; I knew my career hung in the balance that was accepted. I knew how much disappointment I was going to see in him, how much of a tornado I had been for him and his department. Was I going to be worth it to him to keep around? That I didnít know.
Ronnie Denton Ronnie Denton Wednesday, May 21, 2014 2:51:02 PM No doubt about that!
Joe Loetscher Joe Loetscher Sunday, May 25, 2014 9:12:44 PM Tim, great observation and great point. I would like to point out the number of people in "your" organization that are symptomatic for depression and quite possibly PTSD. There is a strong need for leadership to step up to the plate and recognize and validate the pathology that is silently eating at the firefighters lives and their families. For that to happen leadeship must have courage; courage to be humble, empathic, and vulnerable enouph to make the criticle connection that aren't for career advancement or social statues. But the ones that say "you are somebody and I care".
Lynley Carols Lynley Carols Tuesday, May 27, 2014 6:36:01 AM Hi Timothy I so happy that your are very open with your story, as you know we work, life and stay in this toxic environment for as long as we can keep up with it. We love the department but when is the attention ever going to be focus on us. I'm currently doing my Thesis on Stress Management in Disaster Management. And there's always a transition between a firefighter and a rescue technician e.g mentally, physically and psychologically. The Dept must start and focus deeply in EAP( Employee Assistant Programs). Because when you show signs of distress within the environment, your Captain and/or Lieutenant are the once closer to you and they where the once that was suppose to see these problems you have. Stay safe and clean brother and try and keep doing what you doing.
Richard Maney Richard Maney Friday, May 30, 2014 2:06:39 PM When nobody understands it is very sad ,You try to hide it but it never goes away, People say get over it relax, Not that easy, It effects family and everything in between. I hope I can help someone some day before it is to late. My 8 y/o son kept me on the right side of the grass. Thanks to few friends that helped me to.
Ashton Cunningham Ashton Cunningham Friday, June 20, 2014 5:53:39 AM PTSD is a problem experienced by firefighters world wide and treatment should be the focus of our administrators. Great article on a topic that is not usually discussed.

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