Feb 28, 2022 - News

Firefighters advocate for mental health

Illustration of a fire fighter's helmet with a heart emblem.
Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Over the last 15 years, job demands for members of the Cleveland, Tenn., Fire Department have grown exponentially.

  • Jeremiah Million, president of the Cleveland Firefighters Association, says it used to be that unless a building was on fire, the department wasn't asked to respond. Now, if there's a car accident, medical crisis, natural disaster or another emergency, the Cleveland firefighters rush to the scene.
  • "They're seeing traumatic events over and over again," Million tells Axios. "Death after death. Trauma after trauma. You see those things over and over again — we're human just like the civilians we serve — it takes its toll."

Why it matters: Leaders from the Cleveland Fire Department have grown into evangelists for addressing mental health among firefighters.

  • Their mission is to advocate for state legislation that would make post-traumatic stress disorder a workplace injury covered under workers' compensation.
  • Backed by the Tennessee Professional Fire Fighters Association, the legislation would allow firefighters to seek the help they need with PTSD without the financial burden.

Driving the news: This issue hits especially close to home after the suicide of Capt. Dustin Samples in December 2020.

  • "Dustin was one of those guys who if it was bad, he was right there," Million says. "He'd seen a lot throughout his career. We knew he was suffering. After a while, he was very open about it."
  • Last week, firefighters Nathan Kuzdzal and Drew Rader completed the 170-mile trek from Cleveland to the state capitol in Nashville to raise awareness for the legislation.

Details: Samples battled with PTSD for several years before his death, and his efforts to seek help cost his family a great deal of money, according to Million.

  • Million says the mission of the department's advocacy is to destigmatize mental health issues on the front end, and provide the resources for counseling and workers' compensation on the back end.
  • Information about PTSD has now been incorporated into the department's training.

What he's saying: "The big thing is we've always been like that. We've been tough guys - guys who never wanted to come out and say, 'I've got an issue,'" Million says. "We didn't want people to say, 'He's not fit for duty.'"

  • "We've never spoken up. That's the culture we're trying to change."
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