‘It’s okay to not be okay’: Lexington Fire Dept. helping firefighters cope with PTSD

Published: Sep. 14, 2021 at 2:02 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - The Lexington Fire Department celebrates 150 years of serving our community in September.

The first responders are constantly answering our calls and responding to emergencies, but that can take a toll especially when it comes to mental health.

“You know, for 150 years we’ve had a culture of: ‘That’s what we get paid to do, go out and do it. Suck it up.’ That whole mentality of what our job entails,” said Andy Carter, peer support coordinator for the Lexington Fire Department. “When you call us, you don’t want us crying in the middle of your emergency. So, during that emergency, it’s our job to fix it.”

In the moment, that’s exactly what we need, but what about when that moment is over? For many of us, that moment will be a once in a lifetime kind of event. For first responders, it’s just another moment in a lifetime of these events.

“We do get paid to see that stuff, but it’s also a passion of ours to help people,” Carter said. “What we don’t get paid to do is deal with it for the rest of our lives.”

Carter’s team was formed in February to support the mental health of firefighters.

“If I had a broken leg I wouldn’t walk around with a broken leg and act like everything is fine,” Carter said. “I would tell people my leg is broken and I need to get it fixed. So, why aren’t we doing that with mental health.”

A Florida State University survey found that nearly 47% of firefighters had reported that they had thought about suicide and the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that nearly 20% of firefighters and paramedics will develop post-traumatic stress disorder in their career.

Carter says to drop those numbers you need to break that stigma and it starts by having a conversation.

“That’s kind of our goal within peer support is to not diagnose people with depression, anxiety, but to be a gateway to say it’s okay,” Carter said. “You’ve seen somethings and done somethings that the normal citizen hasn’t had to do, and our job is to make that okay.”

Breaking that culture won’t come from the outside, according to Carter. It needs to come from inside the stations.

“I still make structure fires, I still make sick cases, I still make lift assists. I still try my best to respond to those runs because I’m a firefighter,” Carter said. “I happen to be the Peer Support Coordinator, but at the base of what I do, I’m a firefighter, and the only way that I think we can break that culture is by having one of us say, ‘It’s okay to not be okay.’”

Carter says the department and the city also have programs for counciling and therapy available to firefighters and their families.

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