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PTSD911: Saving America’s First Responders

Our emergency first responders are suffering from post-traumatic stress in record numbers. Many remain silent for fear of losing their jobs if they ask for help. This is an unfair and unsustainable situation which impacts individuals, families, and communities.

I sat down with filmmaker Conrad Weaver to discuss his latest documentary, PTSD911, about the mental health crisis among first responders and how they’re uniting to make crucial changes in the system. As Conrad points out, first responders are repeatedly exposed to highly traumatizing situations that require heroism, fortitude, and determination. Similar to security professionals and military service members, first responders sign up to serve. They risk their lives and their mental health to face catastrophes head-on and save lives.

Conrad and I were first introduced by veteran filmmaker and PTSD911 producer Mark Maxey, who I met last year at a film industry event in Washington, D.C. Mark overheard me discussing the importance of telling stories that shed light on the mental health issues plaguing the security community today. He was just wrapping up a film about first responders and immediately saw the parallels between the world I was describing and the dilemmas faced by those serving in emergency response work. He recommended connecting with his colleague, Conrad, the award-winning director behind PTSD911, Heroin’s Grip, The Great American Wheat Harvest, and other films.

We can’t afford for mental health to be a taboo subject in the security community. The people who dedicate their lives to save others deserve to have their lives saved as well. Read on as Conrad discusses the cultural and institutional problems we need to address, the solutions being proposed by leadership, and what we can do as a society to help the people who help us when we need them the most.

Jessica: What inspired you to create a film about first responders and their mental health challenges?

Conrad: In my previous documentary, Heroin’s Grip, I covered the opioid crisis in depth, which included spending two years hanging out with first responders. I did some ride-alongs with law enforcement, with fire and EMS services, just to experience what they experience when they’re dealing with overdoses. And on one of those calls, I witnessed an overdose scene along with the first responders. There was a body lying there, there was chaos in the house, it was difficult to see. And the first responders were like, “Oh, this is just another Tuesday.”

As a result of this incident, I started researching how trauma impacts first responders. That’s when I uncovered this whole problem of post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, and extremely high suicide rates in the first responder community. And I thought, you know what? I bet someone has already told this story in a documentary.

But I couldn't find anything. In fact, I found very little coverage of post-traumatic stress in first responders. I found a ton of films about veterans and their mental health issues, which we know is a really severe problem, but I found almost nothing about first responders. And so I decided to make this my next project. And for the past three years, I've been capturing the stories of first responders dealing with mental health issues.

Jessica: Let’s talk about the role of stigma. While shooting the film, what are the stigmas that stood out to you most prominently in this particular community or work culture?

Conrad: First responders see themselves as the helpers. They show up on our worst days, when our world is falling apart, and they take care of us. So, when a first responder is having a mental health issue like post-traumatic stress or alcoholism or not being able to sleep at night because they’re having nightmares, they’re reluctant to ask for help because they’re supposed to be the helpers. They think, why should a helper need help?

It's an identity issue. They’re big and tough and they run into burning buildings or toward gunfire. They do all these heroic things. For them to admit that they need help is perceived within the culture of first responders as a sign of weakness. They don’t want their colleagues to think that there’s something wrong with them. If a cop asks for help, he’s afraid someone might take his gun away from him.

Director Conrad Weaver meets with Pinole, California Police Chief Neil Gang (c. April 2021)

So, there’s this whole stigma around just asking for help. If they ask for help, this might affect their job. They might actually lose their job. And there’s a precedent for this fear because hundreds if not thousands of people in this field have asked for help and the next thing they know they’re out of a job. This is a terrible thing. So, why would you risk it? Why would you even ask for help if there’s a possibility that you’re going to lose your entire career?

Jessica: So, the fear of losing your job by admitting you need help is not just a perception; it’s a reality.

Conrad: It's definitely a reality. In the past three years there has been the start of a shift away from this mentality, but historically this has been a huge problem for this community. In fact, one of the police officers in my film lost her job for this reason.

Jessica: That’s really heartbreaking. I witnessed and experienced similar situations in the Israeli security community. I know that the U.S. military is also dealing with a mental health crisis today. Would you agree that these cultural and institutional issues among security professionals are not bound to any particular country?

Conrad: This is definitely a problem that cuts across cultures. Since PTSD911 came out, I’ve been getting requests from around the world to screen the film. I just had a police detective from Belgium reach out and say, “Hey, we have a similar problem here. I’m trying to address it in my agency. Can we screen your film here to raise awareness in my department?” I also just had a first responder from Ireland reach out to me about the film because she had experienced a similar situation with her mental health and wound up losing her job as a result.

From the film: police officer Desiree Palmer on duty (c. April 2018)

This is a global issue in the first responder community. I support several friends in Ukraine and as you can imagine the traumas that first responders are experiencing there is just unbelievable. My team is actually working with an organization to travel to Ukraine to see how we can bring some relief to the first responders there.

Jessica: I noticed that when discussing their struggles with PTSD in the film, several first responders talked about the loneliness of their situation. Some of them even assumed they were the only ones on their teams suffering from mental health issues. What is the community and their leadership doing to address this challenge of isolation?

Conrad: When I was working on Heroin’s Grip about the opioid crisis, people in recovery said the best person to help someone else recover is another person in recovery. Similarly, there is now a growing movement in the first responder community for peer support. A person who has experienced trauma and isolation is going to know how to communicate with someone going through something similar so that they don’t have to feel alone.

The agencies that are creating an environment where they encourage everyone to help each other out are doing the right thing. It also creates awareness, so that a first responder knows what to look out for in his colleagues when they’re quietly suffering. This is the kind of support a first responder needs so that they can feel comfortable when that moment comes where they’re brave enough to ask for help.

Sources: The Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders; SAMHSA Disaster Technical Assistance Center Supplemental Research Bulletin

One of the most powerful stories in PTSD911 is told by this crusty old detective in Garland, Texas. He’s a bomb technician for over 30 years and for a long time he mocked the very idea of PTSD. But then he was involved in a shooting where he took someone’s life and in the next six years he started drinking excessively. Drinking a whole case of whiskey in a week. Going deeper into isolation.

One day, a friend approached him and said, “I think you need some help.” He had a good chief who agreed to help. The detective admitted he had a problem and opened up to receiving help. His department saved his life.

And here’s the kicker: he only very begrudgingly agreed to be in my film. And even then he said I couldn’t use his real name or identify his department. Two weeks later, he calls and says I can use his real name and department. Not only that, but he approached me at the premiere of the film and said, “Conrad, thank for allowing me to tell my story. Because now every time I tell that story, I heal a little more.”

Jessica: What a powerful story, with a positive ending. Like many security professionals and military servicemembers, first responders are afraid to ask for help and risk losing their jobs, as you’ve pointed out. Does your film address an antidote to this dilemma?

Conrad: Yes, and that was a big part of what we wanted to do in this film. We not only wanted to dive into the nuts and bolts of trauma; we wanted to showcase examples of agencies that are doing things the right way. Something that leadership is doing right is being proactive and checking in on its members, looking for the signs. Like the young, energetic first responder who is suddenly getting a divorce, drinking too much, taking lots of time off. The leader who steps in to check in, who is also making sure that this person’s job and mental health are protected as much as possible, is doing the right thing.

Emmitsburg, Maryland volunteer firefighters respond to an emergency (c. March 2020)

We need more leaders in the first responder community who aren’t afraid to stand behind their officers when they’re having a problem or even messing up as a result of a mental health issue. We need leaders who are proactive about offering help and healing, so that first responders can thrive.

Jessica: After interviewing so many first responders, did you find any patterns in their personality traits?

Conrad: Every first responder that I've interviewed, they want to help. They have a passion for making a difference. Their lives, their identity, their whole mission is to help, to be givers. And a lot of them—not all of them—come from backgrounds where there was chaos in their family growing up. Perhaps an alcoholic father, an abusive mother.

A lot of people I interviewed in the film actually had traumatic backgrounds. And out of those backgrounds, you sometimes get very strong people. So there are many people in this profession who have a passion for helping others because perhaps they have been the ones who needed help early on.

Jessica: When a first responder is truly incapacitated from continuing in their role, what is the recommended alternative for this person career-wise?

Conrad: I think every situation is different, but the first priority is to get help, then reassess the job situation. Honestly, I think all first responders should be required to see a therapist, so that they have an outlet and the tools to be able to handle the situations they face. Regardless, get help first, then consider if you’re able to continue your work at the same intensity or if you need to perhaps consider a different role in your field that you can mentally handle that is still meaningful to you.

Agencies for their part should not throw out their officers automatically if they can’t handle the field directly. Throwing someone out automatically is devastating. For many of these people, having their uniform taken away is like having their identity taken from them. Agencies should do their best to find alternative work within the agency to keep first responders connected to their mission.

Jessica: You interviewed a range of leadership figures in your film. What were their key recommendations for addressing the mental health crisis among first responders?

Conrad: Make mental health support a priority, make it part of the DNA of your culture. Don’t make it taboo; make it part of a normal conversation. Make it normal for people to look out for each other and encourage each other when they need help.

Firefighters participate in a yoga training at the Cal Fire Center in Ione, California (April 2021)

And give first responders the tools to preemptively take care of their mental health. Teach them mindfulness, yoga, breathing techniques, the importance of physical exercise so that they can stay sharp and healthy. Even better if the leaders themselves can stand in front of their people and admit if they have struggled with a mental health challenge, and then go through the steps of how they got out of it. We have to normalize and prioritize mental health in this community to keep them strong.

Jessica: What can we do as a society to protect and support our first responders?

Conrad: We should go to our legislators and city leaders and push to allocate resources for mental health and wellness within these agencies’ budgets. We need to emphasize the importance of having healthy first responders in our communities. If there isn’t a wellness program in place, ask if there’s a way to create one.

Conrad Weaver on a ride along with Anaheim, California firefighter Matty Florenza (June 2021)

It’s definitely more expensive to fix a broken car than to maintain it. So to for our physical and mental bodies. It’s in the best interest of all of our communities to keep our first responders healthy.

In the beginning, I thought my primary target audience for PTSD911 would be first responders. But now I see how vital it is for all of our citizens to see this film because most people don’t understand what first responders face and the psychological struggles they experience as a result. My hope is that people will watch this film and want to make a difference.

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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, journalists, CIA officers, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.

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