PTSD is deadly, yet we stay silent

When people think of firefighters, it’s often the archetypal images of flashy red fire engines, sliding down fireman’s poles and black and white Dalmatian mascots.

We think of the chiseled hulks adorning charitable calendars, racing up stairs during firefighter challenges and handing out candy canes for the Christmas train in Stanley Park.

But there’s a darker side to firefighting that we never see. Nor can we imagine the horrors to which many of these men are witness.

As emergency responders, firefighters are often the first at the scene of a horrific car accident.

They’re also the ones who see the aftermath of the fires they put out, the weeping and sobbing of those who lost everything to the inferno.

As the months and years of seeing this kind carnage begins to add up, the chances of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) increase precipitously.

I wonder what it is that Surrey firefighter Kevin Hegarty witnessed which brought him to such depths of despair that he took his own life.

My throat closed up as I stood at his funeral on Monday and watched his young son bow his head while the casket was carried to the hearse, his step-daughter clutching his red firefighter helmet.

There’s an expression in the military called “unlimited liability.” When everyone else is running away from a disaster, it is the sworn duty of our Armed Forces, our firefighters and our police to run toward it.

Perhaps the greatest example of unlimited liability was demonstrated on Sept. 11, 2011, when firefighters and police officers ran into the great twin towers to rescue those still inside, despite guessing, or perhaps even knowing, that their own death was likely, if not imminent. We often call these people heroes in a reflexive, unthinking way, because we take it for granted that they put our lives above their own.

And yet the tragedy here isn’t in that we do not celebrate their heroism – for we surely do. No, the tragedy is that we expect them to see and think and act just like us, when it may be impossible for them to try.

With the rate of suicides from those veterans of the Afghan War, it’s becoming

obvious that PTSD is a serious mental illness that we as a society need to highlight and address. For we cannot allow these people who give us so much to think they are alone.

If a family member were to be diagnosed with cancer, we would offer them support and encouragement, try and find the best medical treatment and rally their friends around to show they’re not alone in the battle. So why should it be any different with PTSD?

The stigma of mental illness, depression and suicide continues to hinder our treatment of these very common problems in our society. There is no shame in developing trauma or mental illness. There is only shame in speaking about it in whispers and hushed tones.

Newspapers have an ethical code not to report on suicides for numerous reasons. We do not wish to exploit personal tragedy or to mistakenly promote copycat behaviour. But there’s also the risk of becoming complicit in the stigmatization of mental illness when we do not provide a voice for those in our society who are most vulnerable. As was written plainly on the face of a boy at his father’s funeral, there is far greater risk in staying silent.