First responders advocate for colleagues to seek help if they are undergoing PTSD

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) – With the growing number of suicides among first responders, advocates say the need for help has never been greater. For that reason, the Kern County Public Health Department held a mental health symposium this morning to provide information to assist first responders in recognizing the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

For first responders work means close encounters with danger, chaos, and tragedy on a daily basis. 

“We deal with people’s worst days every day,” said Jana Richardson, associate professor for emergency medical services and former paramedic.

Over time exposure to such stress can take a toll on a person’s mental health.

“PTSD is a real thing among first responders,” said Jeff Fariss, EMS program manager for Kern County and former paramedic. “We see things that a normal individual would never see in their lives.”

According to the public health department, an estimated 30 percent of first responders suffer from PTSD compared with 20 percent of the general population.

The problem is first responders don’t always acknowledge it.

“There’s been a stigma around first responders for many years that to be silent is to be strong and to speak out is to show weakness and that’s absolutely opposite of what it should be,” said Fariss.

A recent study shows that paramedics, EMT’s and firefighters reported having higher suicide rates than the rest of society. In law enforcement, the study suggests between 125 to 300 police officers commit suicide every year.

During the mental health symposium, Benjamin Vernon, San Diego firefighter and paramedic shared his personal battle with mental health. 

On June 24, 2015, while responding to a call, Vernon was stabbed multiple times by a bystander. He was trying to break up a fight between the suspect and a security guard when he came after him. 

“I remember thinking, ‘physically I will heal,” said Vernon. “The stitches will come out and I will go back to work, but I was not prepared for the mental aspect of that.”

Horrific nightmares followed.

“I would re-fight every night and relive the stabbing multiple times,” said Vernon. “I would wake up screaming and sweating. The lack of sleep and the nightmares I began to unravel quickly mentally.”

Luckily Vernon reached out for help, which he says changed his life. Now he encourages first responders going through the same thing to get that help.

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