HUNTINGTON — After 27 years, Steve McCormick still remembers the last night he worked on an ambulance.
It was a routine medical call, a transport to the hospital. They didn’t even run the lights and sirens.
But when McCormick and his partner got there, it turned into a full blown emergency. The elderly patient wasn’t breathing — they ran a tube down her throat and McCormick pumped a bag to keep her alive.
“I felt her last breath in my hands,” McCormick said. “I came home and I told my dad, who worked in an ambulance all his life, that I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Today, McCormick is a captain at the Huntington Fire Department. For two decades, he’s fought fires, responded to overdoses, worked car wrecks and more.
“I’ve seen, smelt and heard stuff I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” he said.
All those calls take a toll. When McCormick was screened for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and showed many of the symptoms, he said it was like a kick in the gut.
PTSD among the men and women in fire, police, EMS and at 911 call centers is a nationwide issue: studies have estimated around 35% of police officers, up to 22% of firefighters and almost a quarter of 911 dispatchers suffer from PTSD. In another study, EMS personnel were found to be 10 times more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide than the average American.
From 2018 to 2021, more police officers and firefighters died by suicide than in the line of duty.
While there have been no numbers tabulated specific to West Virginia, state lawmakers have repeatedly said over the past couple of years that mental health among first responders needs to be a top priority — it’s one of the many issues, along with dedicated funding and pay raises, that fire and EMS have been requesting help with for years.
Del. Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, is part of an informal working group looking at mental health in first responders. He said the issues are complex.
“It’s like hitting a yellow jacket’s nest while you’re weed eating — you don’t know which bee to swat at first,” he said.
Challenges in accessing mental health care
Dr. Kari Mika-Lude, a West Virginia therapist who specializes in treating PTSD in first responders, said addressing and processing a traumatic event quickly is the key to reduce the likelihood it doesn’t become full-blown PTSD.
“Think of it like a laundry pile,” Mika-Lude said. “You might have a laundry pile and for every new piece of clothing you put into the pile, you take a little bit away. But if you don’t take anything from the pile, it gets bigger and bigger until one day, it feels unmanageable.”
For McCormick, he likens it to sponge under a dripping faucet — eventually, that sponge overflows. It could be a routine lift-assist call, it could be a bit of internal department politicking, but eventually, it overflows.
And his sponge was overflowing for a while. McCormick described sleepless nights, being in a constant state of high alert, jumpiness, quick to anger, all signs of PTSD.
“I never thought I had a problem,” he said. “When you’re living like that for so long, you just think it’s normal — but you find out, it isn’t.”
The drive to stay strong in order to help others further complicates issues. Mika-Lude said while the public’s tendency to put first responders on a pedestal might be well-intended, it can push them to keep performing to the point of burnout.
“Helpers are people too,” she said. “When we’re talking about this, I think that’s something the public needs to remember.”
McCormick said turning the switch off can be tough; he’s seen guys turn their whole identity into being a first responder.
“People see my mustache, I might just be wearing street clothes, and they know I’m a fireman,” he said. “It’s hard to make that separation, but look, I’m sitting on my back deck smoking a cigar and drinking a beer, just like anyone else that gets off of work.”
Suffering alone can cause unhealthy coping techniques, like compulsive gambling, excessive drinking and infidelity, according to Vanessa Stapleton, president of Armor Up WV, an organization that raises PTSD awareness and puts first responders in touch with resources for treatment.
But she said there are few places in the state for first responders to seek help.
The state already lacks mental health providers — one estimate at a conference last year for EMS and mental health providers said there’s one mental health provider for every 500 people in the state.
Finding therapists who specialize in first responders is even tougher. And in-patient care — after a suicide attempt or when getting clean from drugs and alcohol — presents its own sets of issues.
Stapleton said getting inpatient treatment out of state is better for first responders because they’re not in rehab with people they may have arrested or may have saved from an overdose. But the Public Employee Insurance Agency has to preauthorize an out-of-state admission — sometimes taking up to two weeks to give the green light.
Healing through meditation and trauma therapy
For the past four years, Huntington-area first responders have had another option: Compass, a program established specifically to deal with trauma among the group.
Located on the top floor of the Huntington Police Department, the office doesn’t have the typical beige walls and harsh fluorescent lights common in most government buildings. Instead, the tones are soft. The lighting is largely natural. There’s no hustle and bustle of keyboards tapping away or a scanner blaring out a call.
Manning the fort on a recent weekday are the tag-team duo of Amy Jefferson, a social worker, and Amy Hanshaw, a personal trainer. With roughly 79% of the city’s police and fire ranks at least popping into Compass — it might be for a coffee, it might be a high intensity training workout — the Amys said the key to the program’s success lies in how it started.
Photos by Henry Culvyhouse
At first, they didn’t have this office, so the two had to take the program on the road, hanging out at city fire stations and in police cruisers. Over time, they got to know the firefighters and the officers.
Putting mental health and wellness in the training program for each department also helped. About a quarter of the department’s ranks are made up of firefighters who underwent this training.
McCormick, who uses the services for meditation and some specialized PTSD therapy, said if this program had started earlier, it could’ve saved even more lives and careers.
“We’ve had a suicide and we’ve a few quit because of mental health issues,” he said. “I think if this was around, that wouldn’t have happened.”
State lawmakers work to improve first responder mental health
But outside of Huntington and Cabell County, the support for PTSD among first responders is much more limited.
Over the past few years, lawmakers have taken some steps toward trying to address the growing crisis. In 2021, they passed a bill to carve out an exception in workers’ compensation law to allow first responders to file claims for PTSD. By and large, worker’s comp claims do not include mental illness caused by the mental stress of the job. But the law included a huge loophole: employers can elect to skip the coverage.
“This bill was a good old-fashioned compromise — if you’re hungry, it’s better to have half a loaf of bread than to say you don’t want any at all unless it’s a whole loaf of bread,” said former Cabell County delegate Chad Lovejoy, who said giving employers the choice was the only way to get the bill across the finish line.
Earlier this year, lawmakers set aside more money for EMS systems around the state, which included a provision to implement “critical response teams” to debrief EMS personnel after a traumatic event. Office of Emergency Medical Services Director Jody Ratliff told lawmakers at least one team was in place and more would come. He also said he’s been working with 988, the suicide hotline, to have call takers ride along with first responders so they better help them when they call.
Statler said he visited the Compass Program and was impressed. During the September Interim session, he recommended his fellow lawmakers do the same.
“The day I spent my time there, the two directors there answered all my questions and I saw several people come in and out to use that facility,” he said. “It is something.”
McCormick says the program is starting to move the needle at the firehouse, if only just by encouraging conversation. He says he now hears chats over dinners at the station about how guys are doing, checking in with one another.
“People didn’t talk about this shit 10 years ago,” he said.
While McCormick is a self-admitted “old hippy at heart” who has been quicker to embrace practices like meditation than others in his department, even he had a tough time accepting help.
When he screened positive for PTSD, he asked his wife, a licensed therapist, what she thought.
“It would be foolish to think someone in your job wouldn’t have symptoms of PTSD,” he recalled her saying.
Even then, McCormick said he had a tough time accepting he had PTSD. It took a nudge from a buddy in the fire service to go see a therapist about it.
“If he hadn’t vouched for the therapist I’m seeing, I’ll be honest, I don’t think I would’ve gone,” he said. “The things we see, the things we remember, the smelling, the hearing, none of that is going away. But maybe we can get some tools to process it better.”
If you are facing a mental health crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24/7, at 988.