Responding before it's too late - Part 1

LEVANT, Maine (WABI) We depend on first responders to help us in our darkest moments.

As a result, they absorb a lot of trauma, crisis and fear in their day-to-day jobs.

Statistics show these jobs are not only physically demanding but can take a big mental toll.

More police officers and firefighters died of suicide last year than in the line of duty, according to a new study released by the Ruderman Foundation.

A jarring statistic that didn't really hit home in Levant until it was too late.

Lieutenant Jon Hicks of the Levant Fire Department says, "Isaac was a very energetic, fun-loving, very genuine person."

Eric Strout, Chief of the Levant Fire Department says, "He (Isaac) was one that was always there for you, everybody on the department and really full of energy, full of life."

Levant firefighter and EMT, Issac Greenlaw ended his life on September 7th.

Hicks, Isaac's colleague of 18 years, and most importantly his friend says, "The saying is you don't know what you've got until it's gone, well that's pretty true here because this place is a lot different now than it was before."

Strout who went on a camping trip with Isaac days before he killed himself says, "It created a void. It created a big hole."

Tania Glenn a trauma specialist who works directly with first responders says, "In the world of public safety it's family. Everybody is so close. So, when a department loses someone that they love and care about the impact is huge. Everyone is hurting, is angry is struggling, is going through these very tough times."

First responders have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression five times higher than civilians according to the Ruderman study.

Hicks says, "I carry around a lot of faces of people who didn't make it, bad fires, bad car accidents, babies that didn't make it, drowning victims. They're all things that you carry in your head and you revisit from time to time."

Strout says, "Doesn't matter if you're the dispatcher that takes the 9-1-1 call or the provider that's there that sees that young child laying there that's passed away. You live with it for the rest of your life. It's there and you can't get rid of it."

Glenn says, "We've just continuously exposed first responders to so much trauma for so long and there's only so much that the human brain and body can take and at this point our first responders are telling us that we have basically pushed them further than they can go."

She says, depending on how they process what they see, first responders can develop what Glenn calls "tunnel vision" making them feel as if they have no other options but to kill themselves.

Glenn says, "As you run out of energy and you're exhausted and you're doing shift work and you're repeatedly exposed to trauma what happens is the brain just kind of pushes us down this path of negative…they're not thinking about all the people that love them and all the reasons to live in life. They only see the bad."

Much of the problem lies within the first responder culture.

Glenn says, "It's kind of like a slow simmer to a boil. Usually, it's not just one event that causes someone to get to this point. It's a series of events over time that simply aren't dealt with."

Jason Moffitt, Brewer Public Safety Director says, "It's the type of field where you're not brought up to express your feelings. It's very much get in, get the job done and get out, keep you're emotions at bay, that type of thing."

Spike Brimmer, Chaplain at Levant Fire Department says, "First responders are by nature are closed up and don't want to show weakness. We saw that with Isaac. We knew he had issues going on and he masked a lot of what was going on with him and so that's what we saw and we tended to believe him. Nobody really understood the magnitude of the problem because he hid it well."

Glenn says it's time for a shift in that culture if things are ever going to change.

She says, "The problem is big. We are at a point where inaction is unacceptable. We have to start dealing with and addressing and providing resources for the mental health of first responders."

In Part II of "Responding Before it's too late" we'll talk more about the call for action and what some local first responders are doing to make a difference.

If you are a first responder struggling with thoughts of suicide you can call Safe Call Now at 1-877-230-6060.

It is a 24 hour resource for public safety employees to speak confidentially with former public safety professionals and mental healthcare providers familiar with your line of work.

Anyone dealing with thoughts of suicide can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline available 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.