'I remember every tragic thing I've seen' - Local firefighters open up about mental health

The Chattanooga Fire Department launched a peer support program in an effort to help firefighters deal with the mental stress of their jobs. (Image: Jim Lewis)

Suicides among first responders are on the rise, says Chattanooga Fire Chief Phil Hyman.

"Our firefighter suicides throughout the nation have actually exceeded the line of duty deaths that we have," Chief Hyman said. "In 2017 we had 103 firefighter suicides, and only 93 line of duty deaths."

First responders deal with death and destruction, sometimes on a daily basis.

"We expose our members to a lot of bad stuff that's the nature of our job," Hyman said. "Most of the stuff you see you can't unsee."

Dallas Bay Volunteer Firefighter and Chaplain Jim Lewis says, "It's a slideshow in your head."

A sickening slideshow of tragic images.

"The worst things that I've personally seen are burn injuries to children," Hyman said. "Trauma to children, those are some of the worst ones."

It doesn't go away at the end of the shift.

"I remember every tragic thing I've seen, especially kids," Lewis said.

From house fires, car crashes, rescues, to the Woodmore bus crash and the 2015 terror attack, Hyman and Lewis have both seen a lot of carnage.

"Those kind of images stick with you for a lifetime," Hyman said.

They also respond to suicides.

"People who have taken their own life, that's really really hard to see," Lewis said.

Lewis has personally dealt with suicidal thoughts.

"I've wrestled with those thoughts most of my life," Lewis said.

Talking about mental health can be challenging, especially for first responders.

"When I started my career early on it was just suck it up it's part of the job," Hyman said. "Everybody knows when you keep things bottled up like that, that's when bad things can happen."

"When you ask first responders how they're doing they're always going to answer the same thing - 'I'm ok'," Lewis said.

Our local first responders are taking a new approach to solving the suicide crisis by creating a peer support group within the department.

"You have to be able to understand what the individual is talking about, that's why it's so important that we do it internally," Hyman said. "Firefighters talking to other firefighters."

Firefighters are trained to notice when a fellow firefighter needs help, and the best ways to respond.

"It's not that I come in and fix, but we walk together toward hope and healing and wholeness together," Lewis said.

For Lewis, his therapy dog Jupiter has been a big help.

"It has done so much for me," Lewis said. "I come home at the end of the day and he gives me his Jupiter hug."

Lewis also volunteers with the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, and as a training coordinator with the Critical Incident Stress Management Team.

He says there are three steps anyone can learn to help prevent suicide.

It's called QPR. It stands for question, persuade and refer.

He says to ask someone if they need help, persuade them to talk about their feelings and refer them to someone who can help.

The newest report released this month by the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network says we lose three people to suicide every day in Tennessee.

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