Bravery Isn’t Staying Quiet: The Mental Health of First Responders

Britton Turner, a former Little Rock fire captain, is learning to cope with the PTSD that stemmed from a career as a first responder.

Britton Turner, a former Little Rock fire captain, is learning to cope with the PTSD that stemmed from a career as a first responder.

By Marla Cantrell • Photography by Jamison Mosley

Eight years ago, while on duty at a Little Rock fire station, then-captain Britton Turner listened as a call came in. There was an unknown medical emergency at a home in the Otter Creek community, and he rushed to the scene to help.

When he arrived, he heard sounds from one of the back rooms. A woman was doing CPR, counting to make sure her compressions were even.

She was trying to revive her son, a man in his twenties, although in the end there was nothing anyone could do to save him. When Turner addressed the woman, she looked up. And that’s when it hit him: She looked enough like his mother to be her twin.

In that instant, Turner saw what it would be like if he were the victim, his mom desperate to save his life.

At that time, Turner had been a firefighter for 16 years. Early on, he’d found a way to compartmentalize the trauma he saw regularly. When he did CPR, for example, he thought of the person as “something” instead of “someone.” It kept all those feelings he had locked in a box that he hoped would never be compromised.

But as he looked at the woman who reminded him of his mother, the box exploded.

Sara Jones, Ph.D., whose husband is a firefighter, has dedicated her time to studying the mental health of first responders at UAMS.

Sara Jones, Ph.D., whose husband is a firefighter, has dedicated her time to studying the mental health of first responders at UAMS.

For the next three years, Turner turned to alcohol for relief. There was seldom a day when he didn’t hit the liquor store. “I knew if I drank, I wouldn’t feel,” he says.

One off-duty day, while having an hours-long lunch at a restaurant, even drinking wasn’t enough. Two bottles of prescription pills rattled in his pocket, and at regular intervals he’d head to the restroom to take either a Percocet or a Xanax. He finally passed out, hitting his head on the floor.

That was Turner’s rock bottom, the event that sent him to Alcoholics Anonymous and to a therapist who diagnosed him with PTSD.

Less than an hour from Little Rock, firefighter Timothy Grimes was facing his own dark time. Before his career ended, he would spend 26 years with the Hot Springs Fire Department. For 12 of those years, he’d operated the Jaws of Life. “There’s nothing I haven’t seen,” he says.

There are similarities between Turner’s story and Grimes’ account. Like Turner, Grimes was able to subdue his emotions during horrific events, including a house fire with five fatalities. Both said the incident that pushed them over the edge was not nearly the worst they’d seen. And both men, now retired, loved their jobs until the mental burden they carried made them dread coming to work.

The one difference is that Grimes was not surprised that he was facing mental illness. As a young man, he’d had to stand before a judge to have his mother committed after she’d suffered psychotic episodes. Her diagnosis was bipolar disorder.

Timothy Grimes, who spent 26 years with the Hot Springs Fire Department, began to experience PTSD after 20 years on the job.

Grimes, who spent 26 years with the Hot Springs Fire Department, began to experience PTSD after 20 years on the job.

“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, bar none,” he says. “And a glimpse of what I thought I had coming,” Grimes says, believing that what afflicted his mother would one day surface in him.

Grimes’ decline began after 20 years on the job when he was called to a single-car rollover fatality. The victim had been thrown from the vehicle. When the coroner showed up, Grimes was the one to pull the sheet back, and when he did, his eyes locked with the deceased. “I felt a chink in my armor,” he recalls.

While that event haunted him, he understands it was the cumulative effects of everything he’d witnessed on the job that made him realize he needed help. Over the years, he’d gone through a drinking phase. He’d had sleep problems. And more and more, he just wanted to be alone.

His diagnosis is bipolar disorder, the same as his mother’s, and one that he was dealing with while doing one of the most emotionally demanding jobs possible.

In the U.S., just over 95 percent of firefighters are male. Both Grimes and Turner say the profession is overflowing with tough guys, and those tough guys find it hard to ask for help.

Assistant professor and psychiatric nurse practitioner Sara Jones with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences spoke to both these men for her study on first responders’ mental health. In total, she’s interviewed 28 participants in Arkansas, 24 of whom are white men. She has funding to interview up to 15 more female and minority firefighters and EMT/paramedics.

Timothy Grimes continues to share his stories with young firefighters.

Timothy Grimes continues to share his stories with young firefighters.

Jones, who’s married to a firefighter/paramedic, is working to develop a mental health service model that can be successfully implemented and that the workers will use.

How dire is the situation? Jones’ results showed 93 percent experienced sleep disturbances, nearly 11 percent screened positive for alcohol dependence, 14 percent indicated moderate-severe to severe depressive symptoms, 28 percent indicated moderate-severe to severe anxiety symptoms and 20 percent engaged in harmful or hazardous drinking.

And that’s not all.

“One in four indicated significant symptoms of PTSD,” Jones says. “One out of three indicates a high risk of suicide. Our survey showed 34 percent were at high risk for suicide. That breaks my heart. Other research shows the risk of suicide is up to 25 times greater than the general population and equal to that of veterans.”

Those statistics are sobering, which is why this study is so important. She’s asked the participants to look at several mental health services that are being used elsewhere, such as in veterans’ programs, seeing which components they like. She’s asked them about the services they receive now, and whether they use them. If they don’t, she’s asked why not.

She’s also working to find a way for first responders to overcome the stigma of mental illness through education and employee training, which is also the mission of Turner and Grimes. Both men speak with active firefighters, sharing their stories, and in doing so, they break the silence that is both deafening and deadly. Both are quick to use their own lives as examples, saying their circumstances improved tremendously after they sought help.

Turner and Grimes understand the hard-earned “tough guy” reputation of firefighters as well as anyone. But they’ve learned something else along the way: Bravery isn’t staying quiet about suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression. Bravery is reaching out for help. 

3 Comments

  1. by Anonymous on July 3, 2018  7:42 pm Reply

    Great article!

  2. by Martha Humble on July 3, 2018  10:39 pm Reply

    You will never be able to take the emotional aspect out of saving lives or serving those in the time of tragedy!! I have PTSD and depression/ anxiety and no one could have ever convinced me that I would suffer with these things!! 20 years of service as NRENT-P and damn proud of it!! Thank you Sarah Jones for the work you are doing!! Thanks Britton you’re my hero!! And Terry!!! Keep on hanging in there- you guys Rock!!!!

  3. by Ryan on July 10, 2018  4:05 pm Reply

    Awesome Article,I Just Retired At The 1st Of This Year From A Volunteer Fire Dept After Almost 28 Years Of Service In Northern Arkansas,And Around 8 Years As A nremt-B!!! I Understand What You All Are Talking About,(Alcohol) Then There Are Times I Wish I Didn't Wake Up In The Morning Although I Do Most Nights Sleep All Night( 8 Hrs)

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