Patrick J. Kenny: “Mayday” for Mental Health

By Patrick J. Kenny

How many of us got into the fire service thinking that we are capable of being modern day superheroes, maybe Superman? Don’t laugh. Stay with me as you think of what your idea of the profession is all about. Did you join because you want to make a difference or that someday there might be a life present on this earth because of an action you contributed to or maybe even did yourself?

Not so funny now, is it? Let’s take it to the next level. As chief officers, our number one goal is to protect our firefighters so they all go home to their loved ones. In cases where that has not occurred for whatever reasons, people’s careers and lives have been ruined.

I attended the Fire Rescue International (FRI) in Denver a few years ago where I sat in on three sessions recounting line-of-duty fatalities; two events occurred here in the United States and the other in the United Kingdom. All left me with the sick feeling of what negative impacts they had on the families of the deceased firefighters, the men and women of those departments, and the leaders of those organizations in particular. The chief officers were no longer superheroes, but now very much Clark Kent, in their abilities to protect against harm’s way.

Take it one step further. What if you as the chief officer or someone else in your organization is struggling to protect a member of your immediate family from harm’s way? We all have experienced this situation or know of members in our departments who are struggling with terminal illnesses of children or spouses or deaths of loved ones. How does that make the involved parties feel when they can’t protect the very one they love? The potential for devastation, both personally and professionally, is as powerful as a line-of-duty death?

My Problem

The presentations at FRI and my son Sean motivated me to share with you some painful lessons I learned from coming face-to-face with my inability to protect someone I loved. I have wanted to write this article for more than two years now and started to do so many times, but I always stopped short. Once when you realize that, you can wear the cape successfully only when the outcome is meant to be, not when you command that you need those life-saving powers, do you realize just how powerless you are. Putting that in writing makes it even more real.

In May 2004, I stood before those gathered at the annual symposium of the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association to receive their most prestigious award, Fire Chief of the Year. In attendance were family, friends, my officers, my wife Eileen and two of our sons, Brendan and Patrick. At that same moment, my youngest son Sean was fighting a battle for his life in a drug rehabilitation center hundreds of miles away. He was not allowed to attend the event since he was days away from being released. Only a very few people in the department and practically no one in the audience that day knew the extent of Sean’s illness.

I thought if the department knew of Sean’s condition, it would have trouble understanding that mental illness had driven him to self-medicate and thus become addicted to drugs. How could they possibly understand the whole mental illness concept and its ramifications when my wife and I were living in that environment every day and we felt lost? I knew my fellow chiefs had their own crosses to bear, so why add to their plate?

That decision, in hindsight, was a huge mistake. The toll it took on me to try and keep up this “super” façade and the pressure it put on my few confidants, my administrative assistant, my deputy chief, and a few trusted friends was–no matter how well intentioned–an error in judgment.  

I can tell you that what I felt that day of the award and continue to struggle with to this day is that I was a fraud and a failure at my most important responsibility here on earth, being a father. I would have traded that award, while a wonderful honor, for my son’s being well. Frankly, I would have traded my life for the same deal.

You see for some reason 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. Tell me I couldn’t do something, and then get out of my way while I proved you wrong! Sound familiar?

Sean was diagnosed with depression when he was only five years old. He lived a fairly normal life until he was entering his junior high school years, and then the depression grew darker. By the start of his freshman year in high school, he was so depressed he was hospitalized for what would be the first of countless psychiatric ward admittances over the next six years. He was subsequently diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, which is a disease that torments an individual’s mind on a daily, if not hourly, basis. His quality of life was difficult at best.

The mental health system in this country is prehistoric. If you have had the unfortunate experience of dealing with that system either for one of your firefighters or a family member, you know what I mean. Insurance coverage is minimal, help–many times defined as more medication and authorized visits to a therapist–is 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 only the physical diseases are understood and accepted by the general public.

On June 3, 2006, Sean took his life with an intentional overdose of drugs. Sean had tried every medication known to man with no results other than harsh side effects. He tried all procedures, up to and including an experimental procedure with an implant in his chest just a couple of months before his suicide. We had been to Mayo Clinic nine months earlier, where the doctors echoed his willingness to try anything. However, his medical history detailing the lack of success on all these different courses of treatment he had experienced throughout his life left them pessimistic as to his prognosis. My wife and I were told that long-term survival looked remote if a new intervention was not found. Sean finally saw no other choice to escape his pain but to go home to God.   

During those years, my wife stayed at home to manage his care. Our whole family made many sacrifices. I kept thinking if I worked harder and taught additional classes on my own time to help pay for those uncovered medical expenses we could find the answer, and I would save him. All of a sudden, on that horrible date, I was faced with the cruelest reality: I had failed to protect my son. If I couldn’t carry out that basic task, how could I be expected to make decisions in the heat of battle to protect my firefighters?

After the funeral, I sat at home before returning to duty and actually asked myself if there would be a question of confidence from my firefighters as to my ability to lead. Who could blame them? “Is his head going to be where we need it to be?” Maybe it was time to find another profession where the possibility of losing another loved one was not so prominent in my thoughts.

This article is not intended to have you pity me or my family. We all either know of or are experiencing similar or worse situations in our lives or departments. The key is, what are you doing to help those in need of psychological support, including yourself?

Many of our states, such as Illinois, have answered the challenge of responding to firefighters in need immediately after a critical incident through a network of response teams (CISM) throughout the state. These teams are made up of highly dedicated trained professionals. You need to know how to contact those teams locally and what resources are available.

My concern speaks more to what is in place for those who suffer from long-term effects from an incident or for the root of the problem that has nothing to do with an emergency response, as was my situation. So let’s look at some lessons I learned that I hope can be of assistance to you.

Lessons Learned

The heroic persona of a firefighter naturally leads to the “tough it out” mentality. I can tell you from my experience there is no way to tough out losing your child, whether by accident or illness. 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. Sure, you can try to go back to “normal,” whatever that is, but you will find the pain too overwhelming to handle alone. I can say for the very first time after Sean passed that I actually had a glimpse of the deep depression he felt every day. The pain is just as real as a toothache. The same result will occur if there is no professional intervention, and that is a deteriorating condition.

1. Find out if you and 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 to come in once a year and meet with each shift. Let him meet the people in your department, not with the goal of having a group therapy session but rather to let the therapist become acquainted with exactly what a firefighter does. How about offering ride time to that individual as another tool to benefit all?

I turned to a therapist who knew Sean and, even more critical, was familiar with 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 add to my difficulty to mentally begin the healing process. She hit me head on with putting my cape down and realizing not only was I not Superman, I also was not God, and both of those realities were okay!

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. As a chief officer, you need to seek out mental health professionals who at least have a basic knowledge of what your firefighters face on a daily basis. If the firefighter feels no connection with the therapist, the likelihood of success is severely diminished. From the therapist’s viewpoint, I would imagine it also is very difficult to treat someone you do not understand.

One month almost to the date on which 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.

2. You can impact how accepting the culture in your department is to dealing with those battling mental health issues, whether it’s a fellow firefighter or a family member. By not sharing with my department to a larger degree my struggles and that of my son, I was sending the message not to talk about mental illness as if it were some dark secret and something to be ashamed of.

I am a big role model guy, and here was an opportunity to model this progressive notion that mental health is just as important and real as the physical side. Instead of seizing that opportunity, I shied away from it under the rationalization that I was “saving” everyone from that pain. I can tell you the reaction since my son’s death has reinforced the notion that many in our profession suffer similar mental health challenges in their personal family or their fire service family.

If I had been more public about my son’s illness, I could have nurtured the culture not only in my department but also in neighboring organizations to be open to mental health issues. I am not proposing that everyone bear his most private issues at roll call each morning; I am saying that the concern for and maintenance of the mental health side of our profession is lagging way behind the physical side. We had better wake up and understand that it is a worthy challenger to our firefighters’ well-being as well as our own. Just the increase in documented cases of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome should have our antennae up.

It has been more than eight years since I last hugged my son. The road to recovery is ongoing; although painful, I have made great strides. That is in no small part thanks to my faith, my therapist, my wife and sons, the reaction of the members of my department, the Hinsdale Fire Department at the time, and my friends throughout the fire service. The existence of that support group for you or one of your people is the result of how your organizational culture looks at and reacts to those with mental health issues.

I have prayed to take something positive away from losing my son.

3. The lesson learned that is the most important is the one my son 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 as is someone who is diagnosed with a terminal physical illness. Their disease is not something you can see like a tumor on an x-ray, but it is just as real and needs support and treatment. As chief officers, we must set up a system to provide help to those in need of treatment.

I challenge you that if you are struggling, take off the cape for a moment and seek the assistance you deserve. In addition, actively look for qualified professionals familiar with firefighting who can provide the support you need personally or for the members of your department. Finally, make sure all know that your department values regarding this issue are clearly to support those in need of mental health assistance. You may not be Superman, but you can contribute to this world’s being a little safer for those for whom you are responsible to care for and protect.

Sean and I both thank you.

PATRICK J. KENNY has been a member of the fire service for more than 32 years. He retired from the Hinsdale (IL) Fire Department with more than 24½ years of service, 14 as the chief. He is chief in Western Springs, Illinois. He is a member of the Illinois Fire Chiefs Promotional Assessment Board and the Illinois Fire Chiefs Educational Foundation; he is a past president of the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association and an advisory board member for the Rosecrance Florian Program for Firefighters and Paramedics. He holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Loyola University and an associate degree in fire science from the College of DuPage. He is an Illinois-certified Chief Officer, is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer program at the National Fire Academy, and has a Chief Officer Designation from the International Fire Chiefs Association. He is an instructor for the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association, the Illinois Fire Service Institute, and the Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy. He has had published articles on leadership, fireground safety, mental health, and fire code challenges. He has twice been awarded the Fire Prevention Achievement Award by the Illinois Fire Inspector’s Association as well as the Richard Arthur Lifetime Achievement Award

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