Research suggests firefighters are at increased risk for depression and suicide, and one young man knows it first hand is working to raise awareness and change minds.
“Asking for help was not an option because I was that superhero,” Chris McKenna said. “Nothing could hurt me, and I was afraid what my friends would think, and there was one night that I almost committed suicide, I almost became a statistic.”
McKenna has spent the past seven years as a volunteer firefighter and EMT for the Vigilant Hose Company in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He was ready for the excitement that goes with the job, but he was not prepared for how devastating some of the calls would be.
“I've seen bodies pulled out of buildings that are burning,” he said. “I've pulled bodies out of buildings. I've seen bodies that have been chopped up and mutilated by a tractor-trailer, just sights that normal people don’t think that we see, and I relive them every day. I had nightmares every day, I had flashbacks all the time.”
McKenna was deeply shaken by the suicide last year of Fairfax County firefighter Nicole Mittendorf.
“When that happened, when she went missing, there was the talk, at first, ‘Is this mental health related?’ because that was the big topic in the fire service at the time,” he said. “And I started thinking what was going through her mind when she committed suicide.”
Her suicide pushed McKenna to seek help, but when he finally did, he realized there weren't many places he could find it. Much of that had to do with what McKenna has found is the stigma attached to mental health issues in fire departments.
“In the fire service, we think of ourselves as the superheroes,” he said. “Nothing can hurt us. We've got this gear that we can go into burning buildings with, all this training that we can do things that normal people can't do.”
“We just assume that everyone has that strong mentality to handle what we go through every day, and you really don't and there's a lot of situations where people should get help and they don't,” said Frank Davis, a firefighter for 40 years and president of the firehouse where McKenna and his brother volunteer. “I'm a perfect example of that.”
“I had to make a decision one day to let two children in a burning vehicle die because of the power lines on the vehicle and I had to decide not to allow our guys to put water on the vehicle because they would have been electrocuted, and I still have those flashbacks,” Davis said. “Years ago that wasn’t a big thing. You’re supposed to suck it up and move on. It works on you after a while.”
In an attempt to raise awareness about mental health issues in fire services and help erase the stigma connected to asking for help, McKenna wrote a research paper on the subject for his college thesis, which will be published. He interviewed firefighters from across the country about their emotional experiences, PTSD and coping mechanisms.
“I want people to know that mental health in the fire service is OK,” McKenna said. “There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. With the sights that we see every day, it's OK to have nightmares about it. It's normal. The brain isn't going to be able to see something traumatic and just turn it off.”
If you are experiencing depression or suicidal symptoms and wish to speak with a crisis worker, call the 24-hour crisis hotline supported by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK to be connected with a crisis worker. You can join a confidential live chat online.