PTSD in First Responders: Breaking the Silence

Local News

In the second part of a two story series on post-traumatic stress disorder in first responders, experts say the first line of defense is conversation.

It can be hard. 

You may not know what to say. 

Break the silence.

 “As firefighters we don’t want to disappoint, we don’t want to let people down,” said Batt. Chief Dionisio Mitchell, Kern County Fire Department. 

They’re labeled heroes.

“We’re looked upon a certain way to the public.  When we’re called upon, we show up, we’re here to solve your problem, make things better, take care of you.  We serve you,” Mitchell said. 

Day in and day out their mental and physical health pay the price. 

“We detach from our emotions,” Mitchell said. 

But they’re never truly detached. 

“When you’re running calls all the time it comes back with you.  It stays with you,” Mitchell said. 

Kern County Fire Department Batt. Chief Dionisio Mitchell knows the reality all too well. 

“It’s hard to come back to the station or come off that call and reintroduce back into your human side of things, the feelings emotions,” Mitchell said. 

It was a call that tapped into his role as a father that triggered his experience with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“The child had been ran over,” Mitchell said. 

A child run over by his mother accidently.  

“The child had gone out to say goodbye to his Mom,” Mitchell said. 

The child reminded him of his own son. 

“The kid was the same age as my kid and had the same boots that my kid had.  It took quite some time to get through it,” Mitchell said. 

It left Mitchell in a vulnerable place. 

“The way things went down and the way I experienced stuff and just how I kind of questioned my career a little bit, like if this was something I wanted to continue to do, I wanted to find out more.  There had to be more out there.  There had to be something better,” Mitchell said. 

Mitchell began going back to school to earn a degree in physcology to help firefighters struggling with mental wellness. 

He now leads peer groups and is available at any time for employees of the Kern County Fire Department. 

“To let them know they’re not alone because those first moments can be quite troublesome and you’re kind of left with you and your thoughts.  That could be a scary place,” Mitchell said. 

Mitchell worked through his PTSD. 

Sadly, many firefighters do not. 

2017 studies reveal more firefighters died by suicide than in the line of duty. 

According to Fire Fighter Behavriol Health Alliance, a leading data gathering agency on the topic, 116 firefighters died by suicide in 2017. 

That’s based on an estimated 45 percent reporting rate.  

According to Tina Casola, a first responder trauma specialist, we have to break the silence. 

“The first line of defense is having conversation,” said Tina Casola, Founder, First Alarm Wellness.

It won’t be easy for you or for the person to whom you’re talking. 

“We’re pulling off a bandaid and we’re going to scrub the wound out a little bit and so sometimes we have to scrub it and that doesn’t feel so comfortable,” Casola said. 

Casola said most people will be defensive, often denying anything is wrong. 

“Avoidance is so strong.  I don’t want to have some person come in and tell me about all these things because it’s going to make me feel uncomfortable,” Casola said. 

Casola recommends approaching conversations in the following manner. 

Instead of asking, “Hey, are you ok?”

Use examples and things you’ve noticed. 

Casola gave this example: “I’ve notice you haven’t been grabbing breakfast with your crew after shift, you never miss breakfast, are you doing ok?” 

“Don’t be afraid to have a conversation with somebody and don’t be afraid if they get a little bit upset in the beginning because of course they’re going to, they don’t want to talk about it, but it plants the seed,” Casola said. 

The most important and hardest question to ask is about suicide. 

“Are you thinking about killing yourself?  People are always afraid to ask that question,” Casola said. 

In her 30 year career, Casola said asking that question has helped in more ways than it has harmed. 

“People either feel relieved that you asked the question because now they can answer it or they’re not thinking that way that gives us some relief.  Even with that protective piece, maybe they’re going to lie to me and tell me that they’re not, but now they know that I’m approachable, that I’m open to having that conversation if they are,” Casola said. 

Even if you are afraid asking will end your friendship – ask. 

“I tell people that relationships are reparable.  Death which is the extreme is not,” Casola said. 

Sadly, despite your efforts, a person may still chose to die by suicide.   

“I don’t want anybody to feel burdened with the idea that I can prevent a suicide of somebody, that’s not fair to anybody as an individual.  It’s a complex and hard thing to deal with,” 

If you’re afraid to have a conversation with someone because you’re not sure how to respond to what they tell you, casola suggests this statement: “I don’t know what to say, I’m just really glad you told me.” 

If you know of a first responder in need of help, here are the resources available. 

Bakersfield Fire Department 
Contact immediate supervisor for information regarding a peer team available daily.    
Contracted clinicians on standby 
Education programs and training 

Bakersfield Police Department 
Contact immediate supervisor for information regarding a peer team available daily.    
Contracted clinicians on standby 
Education programs and training 

Kern County Fire Department
Contact immediate supervisor for information regarding a peer team available daily.    
KCFD CISM Hotline: 661-241-3044 
Contracted clinicians on standby 
Education programs and training 

Kern County Sheriff’s Office
Contact immediate supervisor for information regarding a peer team available daily.    
CISM Peer Support Group
Education programs and training 

Additional resources:

If it is a emergency, call 911. 

Behavioral Health and Mental Services offers a Crisis Hotline and Suicide Prevention Hotline.

Crisis Hotline: 1-800-991-5272

Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

First responders can also visit:

Self-Assessment Questionaire:

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