WESTERVILLE, OH (WCMH) — It’s a new tool for first responders battling with PTSD. With growing numbers of firefighter suicide, the call for help has never been greater.
The truth is, first responders experience trauma every day. They witness death, domestic violence, overdoses and the list goes on. They often suffer from PTSD without even knowing it or are too afraid to speak up. The Star Program aims to change the stigma and stop the trend by shining a light on a disorder thriving in the dark.
“I knew it would be hard physically. I wasn’t ready mentally,” said 21-year veteran firefighter Jay Compson.
In those years with the Westerville Fire Department he has seen a lot.
“You get this backpack. Over time, you start collecting these stones of traumatic events that you have witnessed and start loading them in your backpack,” and nearly one year ago, Compson’s straps gave out. “With my wife and kids, I would become detached.”
Detachment and irritability were just some of the symptoms one with PTSD could experience.
As a lieutenant with firefighters looking up to him, Compson worried about his job. Other symptoms include anger, behavioral issues, guilt and shame.
“Some people have nightmares. Some people have insomnia as a result of their minds just not being able to shutdown and that was my problem. It’s like a dark secret I didn’t want anyone to know.”
He’s not alone.
“The fact of the matter is, 1 in 4 carries a mental illness at some point in their life and much of it is tied to trauma and a traumatic experience,” said Professor Dr. Kenneth Yeager of the College of Medicine Department of Psychiatry with the Ohio State University.
He has worked for more than a decade on the Star Program, which aims to stop PTSD in it’s tracks, simply by talking about it.
“For far too long the issues have been, ‘stuff it down, get back to work, and pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
Yeager says the time for that mentality ends now. He stressed it’s not a mental illness, but a matter of mental health and that it is OK to not be OK.
“We can’t stop them from being at risk, but what we can do is, we can give them tools to deal with the situations they see. And to deal with the fact that from time to time one of their peers is going to be injured or heaven forbid killed,” said Yeager.
Compson knows this now all too well. He’s collected painful memories over the years including the death of Westerville Police Officers.
His crew was first on the scene when Officers Eric Joering and Anthony Morelli were shot and killed in February of 2018.
Now, nearly a year after his PTSD diagnosis he is sharing his journey to wellness with his fire station. The support has been overwhelming.
“We are ordinary people thrust into doing extraordinary things and see someone pretty difficult situations,” Compson said. “Some of them are hurting and we need to get the word out to them.”
Jay Compson spent 30 days at a facility specifically for first responders and PTSD. Westerville is one of three departments using the Star Program, including Columbus and Whitehall. For more information reach out to Dr. Kenneth Yeager, a Professor of the College of medicine dept of psychiatry at OSU at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also find help through the International Association of Firefighters Advanced Recovery Systems.