Since 1949, the United States has observed the month of May as national "Mental Health Awareness Month". The field of mental health, health care organizations, non-profit organizations and partnering affiliates use the media and community events to do outreach and engagement. One of the underlying goals is to show support for those living with a mental illness by de-stigmatizing mental health conditions.
That stigma is intensified in the first-responder community. We expect dispatchers, peace officers, firefighters, paramedics/EMTs and correctional officers to be strong and stoic in the face of crisis. They are exposed to significant amounts of trauma and many silently suffer on the front lines while continuing their service to our communities.
The first-responders and public-safety professionals below share their own stories of survival to inspire others to seek help and treatment...
Melissa Alterio, RPL
911 Communications Director, Roswell Police Department (GA)
Adjunct Instructor, APCO International
I’m not sure I can explain the challenges I have faced with regards to my emotional health for all the years I’ve been involved in 911 and public safety. It’s there, I can feel it – like a heavy weight on my heart/chest; a constant cloud of thought in my mind that surrounds my everyday focus. It is present every single day, but I don’t talk about it. I can’t. And that doesn’t mean I’m weak or that I’m holding it in; it just means that I keep it close to me, like a protective security blanket. The grief, it fuels me. It motivates me to keep pushing forward and doing for others, taking whatever steps necessary to ensure the safety of other dispatchers’ emotional well-being in this job. They are the reason I do what I do, and they’re the reason why I embrace the existence of post-traumatic stress in 911 dispatchers. I have it, without a doubt, and I’m not ashamed to admit that.
We all have different ways of managing stress and emotions. The advice I give to others is to embrace the pain, and don’t run from it. No one needs to fight alone. Recognize what you’re going through and do not compare yourself to others. A call that may generate grief for one person may not do so for another – and that is OK. Let’s be here for each other, resting in the comfort of knowing that there is a network of us across the country. And what a special network that is. We may never meet. We may not know each other’s name. But all of us have been affected by the same emotions, and that makes us family.
Lieutenant Paramedic, Alsip Fire Department (IL) Founder & President, Cent’Anni Life
My trigger for PTSD began on a cold and lonely night in February of 1998 when our department responded for a car explosion. When the smoke cleared, I was informed that the victim was a colleague of mine who committed suicide. For the next 16 years, I experienced the mood swings, anxiety, and the hypervigilance of undiagnosed PTSD.
In early 2014, I became a member of the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support Team. On the second day of training I learned about firefighters and PTSD. It was then I realized that I had unresolved issues that needed attention. I sought the services of a licensed clinical professional counselor not only once, but twice in these last 5 years. The first round focused on the thoughts – the second time, emotions (in 2017).
I am also a firm believer in holistic protocols which are rooted in the balance of mind, body and spirit. In addition to the counseling, I still receive acupuncture treatments, massage therapy, chiropractic care, energy work (I am a reiki master), regular exercise (I am a personal trainer) and nutritional therapy. I am about to retire from the time-honored profession of firefighting and EMS on May 28, 2019, and I learned two very important lessons that I want to gift you.
The first lesson was garnered through my association with Peer Support and is as follows: “Everyone brings a history with them into their chosen career.” Some may come from abusive/alcoholic families and others may have been bullied. The prevailing stigma about mental health may prevent these individuals from sharing their stories with new colleagues. They suffer in silence and then the occupational exposures of being a first-responder compounds this existing stress.
There will always be multiple generations working at the same time within our world and not everyone is going to be friends with the entire department. However, in the time we are with our colleagues (new and old alike), we should make every effort to learn as much as we can about them on an everyday basis. Deep sharing may not readily occur, but we will get a chance to see how they operate under their “norm”. This will allow us to have a more heightened awareness to when there is a deviation from said norm. Those of us who have walked this green mile can then feel more comfortable with having an honest conversation that opens with, “Sit down my friend and tell me a story.” Trust will be gained through strong mentorship.
Whether or not we believe it, first-responder professions will profoundly change us from a psycho-emotional aspect. Some may have a higher resiliency factor than others yet can still be shaken to their core via occupational exposure. There are many other stakeholders besides the first-responder themselves: spouses, significant others, family members: “aka” those that lift us up (our support system).
It is our duty to educate them on what it is like to be us. We do not have to share every gory detail - just the nuts and bolts. This can be accomplished one-on-one, or through spousal support outreach. My wife, Judy, is my best friend in the whole, wide world, and I would have not made it to retirement without her undying love and support through the best and worst of times. On my last day, I will honor her as the firefighter's wife- something she so richly deserves. I offer that the reader(s) do the same - never leave behind those that lift us up. Do it every day, not just at the end of your career. At the end of the day, it’s all about helping the next one in line.
In retirement I am going to continue my peer support work, teach for the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, fitness education, volunteer for an equine therapy program, and obtain my Life Coach certification. For the last 25 years I have worked on the reactive side of life’s equation. My future mission will be rooted in mentoring others on how to improve their quality of life from a preventative or restorative perspective. I want to do my part in making this world a better place to live.
In closing, I want you to know that the echoes of the mind will never let you forget, but in the face of adversity, always have the courage to take the high road. Mine started the first day I entered a therapist’s office – and never looked back.
Public-Safety Community Engagement Manager, RapidSOS Chief Dispatcher (Ret.), Rochester Communications Center (MA)
In July of 2016, I made one of the hardest decisions of my life. After 20 years in the 9-1-1 center I made the decision to leave the profession I loved because of PTSD. The irony? I had been teaching 9-1-1 telecommunicators across the US a class that I wrote in 2012. The class was titled, “How to Save a Life, Yours,”. I discussed PTSD in that class; what it was, what to look for and what to do if you get diagnosed. This whole time I was teaching this class I was the carpenter whose house was not finished. I was the plumber with the leaking faucet and the mechanic that drove a car that stalled all the time. I had PTSD and was in denial. My PTSD did not start in the 9-1-1 center, but it sure did end up there. The foundation of my PTSD was built from years of abusive relationships: relationships that were physically, mentally, emotionally and sexually abusive. I had the perfect blueprint for this outcome. Not only did I have a long history of abuse, I also had to deal with family members that were full of chemical dependency and mental health issues.
After I had the courage to leave my abusive ex-husband, I met my current husband, Jeffrey. This man had a long road of picking up the shattered pieces of my foundation, the one he had nothing to do with destroying. He was patient, kind and stuck with me as I learned to be loved. As the years went by, I learned to put the past behind me. We built and amazing life, we had two beautiful daughters, we built our dream home and I had the career of my dreams. I was the Chief Dispatcher for the town I lived in, the same town I am a firefighter/EMT for, the same town that my husband is the Highway Surveyor and Fire Department Captain for; the town that we gave everything to.
Fast forward to my last 3 years in the 9-1-1 center, the boss I had for years turned on me after sticking up for myself and for my dispatchers. In the blink of an eye he became extremely verbally, mentally and emotionally abusive to me. He would yell and scream at me, control everything I did and, in a sense, it was him that ripped off the bandage of the previous wounds… the wounds that had not yet fully healed. This behavior lasted for months until he left and I was thrilled. I thought for sure my life would go back to the way it was before he opened Pandora’s box. Unfortunately, he had passed on his new found dislike for me to the Board of Selectman and ultimately the new Town Administrator. I endured another two more years of poor treatment, aggressive, controlling and accusatory behavior.
During my last year in the center, calls that I never knew were still unsettled in my head started to surface. It was becoming obvious to me and those around me that I was no longer able to answer/handle the stress of the job as I once was able to do. I was mentally and emotionally breaking down. I was crying all the time, avoiding my life, crowds, stores and the job I loved.
Once I left the center, the next 2 years were by far the most challenging. While leaving was best, it was hard. Not only was I battling PTSD, depression and anxiety, I had to mourn the loss of the person I was for so long. Tracy Eldridge, Chief Dispatcher was no longer here. It was as if she died and any reminder of who she was felt extremely painful.
During those 2 years I was living in a state of fear that was full of demons and triggers from my past! My self-esteem and love for myself and my amazing life were diminishing and my family was taking the brunt of it. It was not fair. I had no choice but to take back control; I had to get out of my bed and my head and get back into my life.
I started looking for any and all treatment that would help me. Thanks to Jim Marshall, Director of the 911 Training Institute, I learned of a new treatment. I had not tried it yet; I was scared to death of it. But it not only changed my life, it saved my life. That treatment is called “Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR).” In this treatment I was able to disconnect the emotion from the past event so similar events did not trigger negative responses. I spent a lot of time listening to a public-safety focused podcast by Carl Waggett called “PTSD Bunker Gear for your Brain” (see below). Recently, I enrolled in a personality training program. I learned so much about my own personality and my needs. I also learned about the personalities and needs of others. I know how to navigate through life with the personalities that caused, and continue to cause, me harm and years of suffering.
Today, I thank God for my challenges. I am blessed to have been given this life because I was strong-willed enough to live it. I have now been given the opportunity to save lives in a very different way than I was used to. I now know that even the best fall down sometimes, and how do I know? I have met some amazing people that are going through what I went through and they too recognized the need to get help and did so. We are now able to share our stories, share our resilience and determination and show folks in public safety that it is “OK to NOT be OK.” Furthermore, it is OK to seek help and share your struggles. You can get to a “new normal”, that normal may not be who you once were but is it a new normal that does not include the fear, sleepless nights, nightmares and flashbacks… a new normal where you are supported and loved.
Through it all I have learned that I will always be perfectly imperfect and while I have PTSD, it does not have me!
Carl Waggett Firefighter, Cambridge Fire Department (Cambridge, Ontario, Canada) Speaker/Blogger, PTSD Bunker Gear for Your Brain
If you love something, should you really let PTSD let it go?
Have you ever heard the term “hiding in plain sight”? PTSD hands-down wins at this little game. PTSD is one of the best-hidden opponents I have ever squared off against. You see, PTSD is not necessarily something that affects you all the time, perhaps with a broken leg. PTSD will rear its nasty little ass up when you’re at your lowest and most tired; when you are vulnerable and unsuspecting.
You see, this disorder is not stupid. PTSD is complex and clever. It knows first-hand the kind of willpower you possess, so it would never think of messing with you when everything is going well and you’re strong. Nope, I found that as soon as PTSD got the memo that I was running on fumes, that’s when it would round up the troops and have another go at me… kind of like an inner ambush.
Sure, working in emergency services requires you to “park” your emotions on occasion. It’s a necessary part of the job. Losing the ability to feel emotions may be your best friend when you’re working on a dash roll with a mother trapped and two screaming kids in the back. And more so when all of a sudden one kid stops screaming and now the other one is asking questions. Being a robot at that extrication may be one of the reasons that the mother and her two kids survive. But it does not help you much when you turn those emotions back on. They come flooding in and you end up losing your shit, ruining a 20- year friendship with a co-worker you graduated recruit class with just because they sat in your chair. It can happen that fast.
If you’re not careful, this stuff will creep up on you. Turning off your feelings, losing interest in the people you love and the things you enjoy… it will catch up with you and drag you down. And if you’re not careful you can lose everything: family, friends, your job, your livelihood, and maybe even your life.
Know the red flags; watch for the warning signs. If you love something, you really shouldn’t let it go.
Ryan Dedmon, MA
Outreach Director, 911 Training Institute
Police Communications Operator (Ret.), Anaheim Police Department (CA)
I worked various assignments in law enforcement for nearly 12 years, but a majority of that time was spent working in an emergency communications center answering 9-1-1 calls. Early in my career, a mentor and friend of mine at the police department died by suicide. I was devastated by her death. I didn't take the time to introspectively examine and process all the thoughts and feelings I was experiencing related to her death. It took 7 years for it to catch up with me in my career in handling suicide calls made by callers from the public.
The feelings of sadness, rage, anxiety, guilt and shame were immense. I attempted to use alcohol to cope, but it did not help. Physical exercise didn't help. Nothing seemed to help. I was drowning. I became anti-social, withdrawing from any support system because I was afraid of what others would think of me. They would label me as "weak/dysfunctional/problematic" and those are liabilities in public-safety. It was psychologically and emotionally exhausting beyond words can describe and I felt out of options. I was on a very self-destructive path that was headed for a dead-end sooner or later. I resigned my position overnight, leaving a profession I really did enjoy. I was diagnosed with PTSD and went through months of counseling, along with a specialized therapeutic treatment process called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
Today, I teach training classes and make speaking appearances to help dispatchers and peace officers recover from their own occupational stress-related injuries. I don't want any of them to suffer what I did and feel like they don't have support or options to heal and recover.
I am the captain of my ship; I will navigate to waters that bring me peace and happiness.
Special thanks to all the brave people above for being open and vulnerable in sharing their stories. As we recognize Mental Health Awareness Month, it doesn't matter if you're a first-responder, teacher, lawyer, nurse, plumber, actor, bartender, banker... we're all just people.
Deep within you lies a strength unknown. Sometimes you just need a little help tapping into it; and when you do, you can find the sweetest freedom in healing. Reach out for help. Together we will break the stigma. We never walk alone.