In May 2004, I stood before the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association to receive the group's Fire Chief of the Year award. My friends, officers, my wife, Eileen, and sons Brendan and Patrick were in attendance. My youngest son Sean was fighting a battle for his life in a drug rehabilitation center hundreds of miles away. He was days away from being released and not allowed to attend the event.
Only a very few people in the department and practically no one in the audience knew the extent of Sean's illness. I thought if they did, they would have trouble understanding how mental illness had driven him to self medication and addiction; my wife and I lived in that environment every day and still felt lost. But that decision was a huge mistake. Despite my good intentions, the pressure on myself and on my few confidants to keep up the façade took its toll.
At that award ceremony, I felt like a fraud who failed at his most important responsibility — being a father. I was one of those people who really believed that I could save the day. Whether it was my family or my fire department family, I could always find a solution. I would have traded that award, I would have even traded my life, for my son to be well.
Sean was diagnosed with depression when he was only 5 years old. He lived a fairly normal life until junior high school, when his depression grew darker. By the start of his freshman year in high school, he was hospitalized for what would be the first of countless psychiatric ward admittances over the next six years. Subsequently he was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. His quality of life was difficult, at best.
The mental health system in this country is prehistoric. Insurance coverage is minimal, help many times is defined as more medication, and authorized visits to a therapist are at a minimum. It is sad to admit, but you are far better off to have your firefighter or family member diagnosed with a dreaded physical disease than a mental illness. Both cases reflect horrible situations, but the general public understands and accepts physical diseases more easily.
On June 3, 2006, Sean died from an intentional overdose. He had tried every medication known to man and received nothing but harsh side effects. He tried every procedure, including an experimental chest implant just a couple of months before his suicide. We had been to the Mayo Clinic nine months earlier, where the doctors echoed his willingness to try anything. His medical history detailing the lack of success on all his different courses of treatment, however, left doctors pessimistic as to his prognosis. My wife and I were told that long-term survival looked unlikely if a new intervention was not found. Sean finally saw no other choice to escape his pain.
My wife stayed home during those years to manage Sean's care. The whole family made many sacrifices. I kept thinking that if I could work harder, teach additional classes on my own time to help pay for those uncovered medical expenses, we could find a way to save him. But that day I was faced with the cruelest reality — I had failed to protect my son.
After the funeral, I wondered if my firefighters would question my ability to lead. Who could blame them? If I couldn't protect my son, how could I be expected to make decisions in the heat of battle? I thought it might be time to find another profession, one where the possibility of losing another loved one wouldn't be so prominent in my thoughts.
I'm not asking that you pity me or my family. Everyone has or knows someone who has experienced this or worse. I only ask that you look at what you are doing to help yourself and those in need of psychological support.
Illinois, like many states, has a network of critical-incident stress management response teams throughout the state. Find out how to contact these highly trained, dedicated professionals and ask what resources are available.
My primary concern is for those who suffer either from long-term effects from an incident or from a problem that has nothing to do with emergency response. I hope my lessons can help them.
The heroic firefighter image naturally leads to a tough-it-out mentality. There is no way to tough out losing a child. As a priest friend of mine put it, “You just joined a fraternity no one wants to belong to.”
You need to seek professional help. You can try to go back to normal, whatever that is, but you will find the pain too overwhelming to handle alone. For the very first time, I actually had a glimpse of the deep depression Sean felt every day. The pain is just as real as a toothache.
Does your department have a therapist you can turn to when faced with mental health concerns? I am talking about someone you have met, not just a name at the end of an employee assistance program business card. Make contact with that therapist and think about inviting him or her to come in once a year and meet with each shift, not to have a group therapy session but rather to get to know what exactly a firefighter does.
I turned to a therapist who knew both Sean and the fire service. She made me face my demons of guilt and self doubt with an understanding that my profession and my own heroic persona were going to make my healing process more difficult. She helped me realize that I wasn't a super hero and that that was OK.
Her experience with the fire service was instrumental in opening my heart to hear what she was saying and believing she actually knew how I felt. Seek out mental health professionals who have at least a basic knowledge of what firefighters face daily. If the firefighter feels no connection with the therapist, the likelihood of success is severely diminished. I would also imagine it is very difficult for a therapist to treat someone he or she doesn't understand.
Almost one month to the date after I lost my son, one of my firefighters had the courage to come to me with a very serious mental health challenge. Unfortunately, I knew exactly what he was struggling with; more importantly, I knew the trained professional to call. You never know when that call for help might be right outside your door at home or in the station.
You can directly affect how accepting your department is to those battling mental health issues, whether it's a fellow firefighter or family member. By not sharing my struggles with my department, I sent the message that mental illness was a dark secret to be ashamed of. I had an opportunity to be a role model and say mental health is just as important as physical health. Instead, I rationalized that my secrecy was saving everyone from that pain. The reactions since my son's death have told me that many in this profession face similar mental health challenges, either in their own families or in their fire service families.
I am not proposing that everyone voices his or her most private issues at roll call each morning. But the concern for and maintenance of mental health is lagging way behind physical health in the fire service. We need to understand that mental illness is a worthy challenger to firefighter well being. The increase in documented cases of post-traumatic stress syndrome should raise our antennae.
It's been more than two years since I last hugged my son. I'm still on the road to recovery and, while painful, I have made great strides. That is in no small part thanks to my faith, my therapist, my wife and sons, the members of the Hinsdale (Ill.) Fire Department and my friends throughout the fire service. I thank especially my administrative assistant, Marilyn Forslin, who watched out for my well being, and Deputy Chief Mike Kelly, who kept things from reaching my desk until I was ready to handle them. Such support groups grow naturally in an organization that recognizes the need to deal with mental health issues.
I have prayed to take something positive away from losing my son, and the most important lesson is one Sean taught me: Those who suffer from mental health challenges, no matter to what degree, are wonderful and courageous people. They are no more weak or responsible for their illnesses than someone who is diagnosed with a terminal physical illness. Their diseases are as real as tumors on an X-ray and need the same support and level of treatment. As chief officers, we must set up a system to provide help to those in need of treatment.
If you are struggling, seek the assistance you deserve. Actively look for qualified professionals familiar with the fire service who can provide the support you need personally or for the members of your department. Finally make sure all know that your department values are clear as to supporting those in need of mental health assistance. You can contribute to this world being a little safer for all those you are responsible to care for and protect.
Pat Kenny is the deputy chief of Western Springs (Ill.) Fire and Emergency Services.