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The following story features Keith, a former firefighter and participant in our Deconstructing Stigma: Changing Attitudes About Mental Health public awareness campaign. Told through the eyes of its participants, this campaign boldly challenges the misconceptions of what those with mental illness look like and is intended to spark conversation. To learn more, visit DeconstructingStigma.org.
“The first responder world is made of tough-as-nails, tight-lipped individuals who live a life where nothing seems to bother them. It’s gotten better in recent years, but mental illness is still very much a taboo subject,” said Keith.
Living in the world of firefighters and EMTs, Keith always felt he was unable to speak about his mental illness. He was diagnosed with ADHD as a child and received a diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as an adult. The sudden death of his first wife brought on new problems—and all his problems have been amplified by his dangerous, high-stress work as a first responder.
“I had been on and off tons of meds since I was a child,” he said. “It wasn’t until 2015, when things started getting really bad, that I re-sought help with my symptoms.”
Initially, on the advice of the chief of the fire department he was working for, Keith sought help at an onsite facility. Eventually, he entered McLean Hospital’s LEADER program—a program focused on the mental health issues faced by first responders and people who work in law enforcement and the military—where he was diagnosed with complex PTSD.
“We worked a lot on educating not only me but also my wife, on everything about my form of PTSD. I began, very slowly, to be able to better manage my symptoms and triggers. Now, three years later, I have become very self-aware of what can trigger me, when I’m hypervigilant, and am much more open about all my symptoms and able to communicate when I’m not in a good place. I’ll never be cured, but I’m so happy to be alive.”
Keith shares his story to encourage other first responders to talk about mental illness and get help. He has written a book about his experiences, and he has started a Facebook group about PTSD and how it affects first responders and military veterans.
“My goal is to show that it doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what you do for work, or how tough you are. Mental illness does not discriminate.”