‘There is nothing wrong with not feeling OK’: A firefighter with depression speaks out

We have to support each other and be willing to give help – and not just through dark humor or a slap on the back with a “you good?”

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I have depression. I have for as long as I can remember, even as a kid.

Most people are very surprised when they find this out about me. I am very social and talkative, I have no problem speaking to people or in front of a crowd, and the biggest thing: I am a firefighter.

There seems to be a misconception that depression is weakness, that there is no way someone who occupies a role like firefighter, police officer or NFL quarterback, could have depression. These are strong people, strong-willed, able to make snap decisions in high stakes environments. Common misconceptions are that people with depression are meek, timid, constantly moping around, indecisive. Strong people don’t feel depressed or have clinical depression.

This is false.

I was motivated to share my experience when I heard an ESPN anchor criticize a quarterback for not being a “leader of men” when he admitted to having feelings of depression and anxiety. This is toxic thinking, and I’m afraid that there is some of that still floating around in the fire service. It reminds me of a story I heard about an interaction between a captain and a rookie firefighter. Following a pediatric arrest, the captain said to the rookie while riding back to the station, “Hope that shit doesn’t bother you, rook, ’cause if it does, you should find a new job.”

Clinical depression is not just sadness, at least in its simplest form. You would probably be surprised at the people who have depression. Think of the comedians that have died by suicide; they don’t seem very depressed.

Everyone has experienced periods of depression, times when they are sad or unsure, and for many, these feelings pass. That is the healthy progression of the healing process. But for those of us with chronic clinical depression, these feelings appear without warning and occur often, sometimes multiple times a week from months or years at a time.

Depression is constant self-criticism, unreasonable anxiety, constant fatigue, memory lapses, difficulty concentrating, inability to enjoy things. It’s also feeling guilty for feeling that way because you worry you don’t have a “good” reason to feel that way. Depression is like having the biggest bully you’ve ever met living in your head, and the bully has a megaphone and won’t shut up.

Now there is nothing wrong with self-criticism. In fact, being able to constructively look at our shortcomings is how we grow, and we should do it often. The difference between constructive self-criticism and destructive self-criticism might be thinking something like, “Man, you really could do that better” and “Man, you really are a piece of shit.”

There is nothing wrong with not feeling OK, whether it is constant or only momentary. Period. We are exposed to terrible images and tragedies; consequently, feeling depressed is realistic. As such, we have to watch out for and support each other, we have to be willing to give help and find help, and not just through dark humor or a slap on the back with a “you good?”

As first responders, we are more likely to die from suicide than in the line of duty. We have to be willing to stop looking at depression as a sign of weakness. I started medication four years ago and see a counselor a few times a year, and this was one of the best things I could have done. Seeking out help has made me a better husband and father – and a better firefighter-paramedic. I still have moments, just like everyone, but I feel so much better.

If you’re having trouble, don’t be afraid to seek help. The only place to go is up. I promise.

Editor’s note: Suicide is preventable. If you are feeling suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline immediately 1-800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org to chat with a counselor. 

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