SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – First responders are tasked with extraordinary responsibilities. Those responsibilities come by the way of calls. Each call is meant to keep the public out of harm’s way or in worst-case scenarios, save lives. Unfortunately, the toll of those calls is creating a mental health crisis as old as the profession.
“Back then you didn’t talk about mental health issues, right, it was very much seen as if you had a mental health issue there was something wrong with you,” said Sheriff Kelly Sparks with the Davis County Sheriff’s Office.
Our first responders are a special breed of caregivers. They run towards danger rather than away.
“We don’t wish accidents or tragedies to happen, but if they are to happen we are trained to help you,” said North Davis Fire District Fire Chief Mark Becraft. “I think it is a big weight on a lot of guys’ shoulders. They won’t tell you that but you know; when a house is burning or a bad traffic accident has happened or whatever, decisions have to be made immediately and there is a lot of them that need to be made.”
When the emergency lights stop flashing and the harsh reality of the call sets in, who is there to rescue the rescuers?
“I think we are seeing more and more the results of not dealing with it,” said Draper City Fire Department Chief Clint Smith. “To some respects you always kind of think, ‘agh, it won’t happen to us,’ and you find out just how quickly you can be really smacked into reality.”
It’s an unknown weight of the call.
“Unfortunately, it is a cross that we as first responders will bear for the rest of our lives,” said Administrative Sgt. Scott Adams of Draper City Police Department.
Since 2016, four people within Utah law enforcement took their own lives.
Nationwide, 578 brothers and sisters in blue… suffering in silence… did the same according to www.BlueHelp.Org.
The numbers aren’t better for firefighters. Since 2002, Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance states 15 Utah firefighters took their lives.
Nationwide there are 1,375 confirmed suicides to date.
Sheriff Sparks said, “We need to do all that we can to prevent anybody from getting to the situation where they feel so hopeless that they are contemplating taking their own life.”
The sheriff believes it’s in the DNA of first responders to help others. Ironically, the selflessness and hero mentality may prevent these men and women from getting the help they need.
“We ought to be dealing with these mental health issues the same way we deal with physical health issues,” he said.
First responders often see and deal directly with the worst life has to offer.
18-year veteran Niel Major, a deputy, and paramedic in Davis County suffers from the weight of his calls. He says one of his hardest ones have a personal element to it.
“I went on a call with a child who had ended up dying. And I was doing CPR on that child and I noticed he was wearing the same pajamas that my son had. I had a son that was the same age as him. He felt like the same weight. It felt like I was holding my son in my hands,” said Dep. Major.
There is no denying the emotional weight of an emergency call and the huge burden that comes with responding to that call.
Roy City Fire Cheif Jeff Comeau said, “We have a five percent higher PTSD rate than the public does just from the trauma and some of the things we see.”
Furthermore, these emergency workers often deal with what’s called vicarious trauma, listening to horrific and emotional first-hand accounts of survival and that takes a huge emotional toll on a person’s mental health.
ABC4 News found in a four-month investigation that vicarious trauma is often harder to treat and presents other problems.
“We recognize that it is causing other issues with substance abuse, marital problems, can be money problems, all of those things that can be a result of that,” said Chief Smith. “And of course, that affects their performance at work and we need to be on our game when the calls go off.
The acknowledgment of mental health issues like PTSD by the ranking members of first responders allowed those who usually suffer in the shadows to come out into the light in search of help.
Sheriff Sparks said, “We as leadership, from the top of an organization through all of the ranks of leadership just really need to normalize it and encourage it, and maybe even have that expectation that that is what we will do.”
Our first responders are looking at ways to deal with mental health issues in their departments. It is something that is gaining rapid support across the state.
One of the groups that are often overlooked is our dispatchers. Tuesday night, ABC4 News will show you what the Weight of the Call does to those who often don’t finish them.