DAVIS COUNTY, Utah (ABC4) – South Davis Metro firefighter Mike Shafer knew he had to do something to open up a dialogue.
An eight-year veteran in the fire service, Shafer and his fellow fireman often had to rely on each other to deal with the trauma and mental health effects of their dangerous occupation. The scary thing to him about the inner struggles he and his co-workers were dealing with, mentally and emotionally, was its invisible nature.
Shafter remembers thinking one of his best friends, who was also a firefighter, had an “amazing” life.
“He’s like the happiest, funniest guy,” he says of his buddy to ABC4. “You could have lined up 10 people in a room, I wouldn’t have thought he was the one that was dealing with those issues.”
His friend, however, had a suicide attempt not long ago after struggling to cope with the stressful and traumatic nature of life as a first responder.
“That event made me feel like I need to talk to people about those things,” he says.
To bring awareness to the mental health issues many frontline workers experience, Shafer, who grew up in West Valley City, turned to his passion for creating music. Combining his musical skills with his wife’s abilities as a videographer, Shafer released a music video on YouTube titled “WHO AM I,” with lyrics and imagery describing the experiences he and fellow responders share in the aftermath of working in unimaginable settings.
The visuals show a character, played by a real-life firefighter that Shafer cast for the videos, tearfully remembering responding to calls such as a gunshot victim, a household CPR call, and an additional female character succumbing to an overdose.
“My occupation’s a firefighter, we see a lot of things every day and never talk about it. We just collect these scenes until they come out of us and it effectively seems we ain’t got a problem,” raps Shafer in the background before appearing near the end of the song to lend support to the main character.
Shafer, his wife, and the crew for the video took about a month to shoot the visuals. While finding folks to fill the roles for the story, Shafer looked specifically for actors and actresses with experiences involving loved ones and suicide.
“It’s probably the biggest production thing I’ve ever been a part of,” he states.
Opening up the discussion on mental health, especially in a line of work that can be typically skittish of such a thing is an important step and a large hurdle in making things better, says Dr. Andrew Smith. A member of the psychiatry department at the University of Utah and the founder and director of the occupational trauma program at the school, Smith has intensive experience treating frontline responders.
He confirms to ABC4 that frontline responders such as firefighters, police officers, and healthcare workers are often subject to a myriad of mental health syndromes. Smith calls this a “perennial problem that’s only been exacerbated by the pandemic.”
Reeling from repeated exposure to stressful and sometimes, gruesome, calls to duty can result in major problems such as anxiety, major depression, and PTSD which can lead to marital dysfunctions, heart disease, sleep disturbance, and outbursts of violence.
While Shafer feels the resources available to firefighters have gotten better in recent years, Smith asserts that a less-than-helpful mindset around those voicing mental health issues is “real” and ongoing.
“The stigma is real,” Smith states. “The way organizations and systems often work, if a provider or an emergency responder is identified as having some form of mental illness or a mental health problem, in pretty indirect ways that can really affect their ability to be given more responsibility or to be promoted into a better position.”
Smith and Shafer have never met, but when told of the firefighter’s projects to break down the barriers and walls surrounding mental health issues for firefighters, Smith explains the underlying message he sees in the music.
“He’s talking about his distress and the distress of the people around him,” Smith supposes. “He’s also demonstrating the ways he’s healthy and productive. Even in distress, a person can have problems with mental health or having mental health distress, and still function in society and be a great parent, be a great co-worker and be good at their job and be a musician and an athlete. Those things are not mutually exclusive.”
Shafer hopes his music career will take off and has made several investments to make his message sound as polished as possible. Above all, he loves this specific message can have a possible impact on his fellow firefighters.
“I think the song is just trying to get firefighters to feel like it’s okay to reach out or if you need help, to reach out.”