Burned In You: Firefighter suicides, PTSD numbers show alarming trend

According to the Firefighters Behavioral Alliance, over the past four years’ suicide has claimed the lives of an average of 127 firefighters and emts per year.

GRAND TRAVERSE COUNTY, Mich., (WPBN/WGTU)--Very few people grow up and get to do what they dreamt about as a kid. Matt Adamek is one of them.

"My dad was a firefighter so technically we call it going into the family business, I became a firefighter and I loved it" explains Matt. For the past 13 years, when the fire bell rings at Grand Traverse Metro, Matt and the men and women he shares the fire hall with suit up, go out and often deal with the unimaginable. On a daily basis first responders deal with stressful and sometimes disturbing experiences that can be hard to process. Matt says "people when they come into this career they know what they are getting into, but when they actually see it, it's a shock."

In 35 years as a firefighter, Chief Pat Parker has seen it all; from lives heroically saved to lives tragically lost. Parker says, "all of our senses get aroused, things we see, touch, smell, its gets burned in you. I can go to my happy place and try to get away from it, but a lot of people can't."

It’s that struggle to get back to a happy place after seeing death and destruction on the job that is taking a tremendous toll on our first responders. Parker says "I think we all react to a situation differently, but I don't think we showed that externally. I think right now we are seeing that more. We are seeing firefighter’s suicides up, and an increase in PTSD."

According to the Firefighters Behavioral Alliance, over the past four years’ suicide has claimed the lives of an average of 127 firefighters and EMTs per year. To make matters worse that number is probably low with an estimated 60% of firefighter suicides not being reported.

"So often you just sucked it up, and now we are saying you don't have to suck it up, you can go get help, and we want to provide you help," explains Parker. Help for those dealing with PTSD can come in many forms, often involving some type of therapy and medication. Not everything works for everyone and often tough fire fighters have a hard timing admitting or even realizing their job is taking an emotional toll.

Dr. Greg North is a clinical psychologist who has experience working with first responders and veterans, but he says anyone can experience PTSD. It’s often those around an individual who notices the behavior and effects first. Dr. North explains "most of the time it comes from family members that there is something going on. Unfortunately, a lot of people want to be the tough guy and they say there is nothing wrong with me, I am tough. I can deal with things. Then when things start happening such as marital problems excessive drinking, usually they are forced to come in."

Dr. North says sometimes his clients come in simply knowing that something isn’t right. Often it takes digging a little deeper in order for a PTSD diagnosis to surface. Once it does, Dr. North says there are many different options for treatment, and sometimes it takes more than one approach to find something that works. He also stresses the importance of family therapy for those who interact with someone with PTSD. He says it can provide a support system and better understanding for what may seem like illogical behavior.

PTSD maybe the elephant in the room that everyone knows exists but are so hesitant to address. If a firefighter speaks up to his boss, do they risk losing their job or the respect of their peers? It’s not easy in the fire hall environment to admit that you’re not bulletproof. So perhaps, it took tremendous courage for Matt Adamek to raise his hands at a recent fire hall meeting. It was a meeting where Chief Parker was addressing the emotional impact of the job.

Matt says "I thought it was time for me to stand up and say hey this stuff is real. It not just effects the people we run on, but this effects the people that you work with."

In front of everyone, Matt explained his own PTSD journey, one that started when he was United States Marine at the start of the Gulf War 15 years ago.

Parker says "I call him brave, because stepping off the curve and saying you have PTSD is remarkable, that you have a young man willing to go on TV and say I have PTSD is incredible. I just applaud him for having the courage to do that.”

Matt was open about the PTSD struggles he dealt with, the drinking, the fighting, and the loss of friends. Matt says "I had a rock bottom everybody kind of does, it depends on if you capitalize on the rock bottom. Me, I had my 2 daughters and I realized that I needed to move on from this and they needed a dad."

So Matt got help, he tried everything, many of which didn’t work, but ultimately he found the most comfort by talking to others who have had similar experiences. He realizes that the PTSD will always be with him, but by addressing it, he hopes to be able to limit the impact it has on his life. While his PTSD didn't come from being a fire fighter, he felt by opening up to his peers. By sharing his message with his fellow fighters, he hopes they will feel more comfortable speaking up and asking for the help they may need. "Hopefully me saying this, some other people will, in the firefighting, emt, and law enforcement businesses can say “Hey I have PTSD too and they can talk about it and get help as soon as possible."

To learn about PTSD and it's impact on fire fighters, or to find out what help may be available click here.

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