First responder trauma linked to PTSD, suicides

By Tera Roberson - Special Projects Producer , Sara Donchey - Anchor/Reporter

HOUSTON - Robert Harrington Jr. fondly remembers his father.

"I remember going to the station quite a bit on holidays: Christmas, Easter, always being in my Halloween costume, going up there to see him because he was working so much," Harrington said. "I was proud of him, he was my hero, and he always seemed to have it together."

But those memories soon give way to the reality that his father is no longer alive.

His father, Robert Harrington Sr. was a first responder with the Houston Fire Department for 29 years, and then later with Metro Police.

In May 2009, while on duty with Metro Police, his father shot a knife-wielding man during an altercation near the Medical Center.

"The man did die because of that and it weighed very heavy on my father," Robert Harrington Jr. said. "It was a downward spiral after that."

Robert Harrington Jr. said the trauma of the incident haunted his father until the day he took his own life in September 2009.

In August 2015, Katy firefighter and veteran Jason Anderson killed himself while on duty in the fire station where he worked.

Susan Anderson, his mother, said she had just seen her son earlier in the day.

He went back to work at the fire station when he sent her a text: "I love you."

"I just texted him back, 'I love you too,'" Susan Anderson said. "I found out later that 15 minutes later he had taken his own life."

Though Jason Anderson never talked about it, Susan Anderson said she feels her son suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after his time in the military and as a firefighter. She wants others to know that it's OK to ask for help.

"They don't have to suffer alone," Susan Anderson said. "They need to share and not feel like they're alone with whatever it is that's hurting them."

Chaplain Skip Straus is a retired firefighter and founder of Emergency Chaplain Group. He works with a team of chaplains to provide support and counseling to first responders in dozens of agencies, including Deer Park, Cy-Fair and Atascosita. He said it's very hard for a first responder to not be affected by the images they see daily.

"The ones where there are multiple fatalities, especially bloody scenes, those kind of things stick with you," Straus said.

He said he believes the demands of the job, along with life, creates the perfect storm for those with suicidal thoughts.

"Cumulative stress, or where there's chronic stress, even into PTSD, is the root of all evil if you will," Skip said. "Coupled with relationship issues, coupled with substance abuse could bring somebody to that brink."

HFD has two staff psychologists on duty, as well as a peer-to-peer counseling team.

Capt. Bonnie Richter has been with HFD for 19 years and is a member of the Department's Critical Incident Stress Management Team.

Richter said it's vital to learn coping mechanisms to help deal with stress of the job.

"We've been called and said, 'I have a gun to my head,' or, 'I'm about to take all these meds, and I just, I don't want to do this anymore.'"

Firefighter suicides are tracked with the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance. In 2013, there were 70 confirmed suicides. That number jumped to 107 in 2014. And in 2015, the number of confirmed firefighter suicides is already at 94.

Richter said there are signs to watch for in a first responders behavior.

"All of a sudden, they are very quick and they snap at you for things," Richter said. "They drank a little bit, but now they are drinking a lot more. Anything that is to extremes is things we pay attention to."

Robert Harrington Jr. said he realizes there is nothing he can do to bring back his father, so now he strongly urges other first responders to let go of the hero persona and get the help they need.

"It's essential. It has to happen, or we're going to see a lot of people dealing with it like my father did," he said. "No matter how tough they say they are, or how they can mask it, they're still hurting on the inside."

For more information on resources available to firefighters and other first responders, visit the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance website at www.ffbha.org.

Emergency Ministries Group will hold its fourth annual gala, Hope For Heroes, on Nov. 12. For more information on the event, or to support EMG, please visit www.emergencyministries.org.

On Nov. 7, Help A Hero: A Benefit for PTSD, will be held in honor of firefighter Jason Alexander. For more information on the event, click here.

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