‘I’m Not OK’: First Responders Learn To Embrace Help For Mental Health During Symposium

When a medical call came in on June 24, 2015, to assist an intoxicated man at a trolley station, San Diego firefighter Ben Vernon thought it would be a routine situation.

He had been on this type of call several times in the past, so he was not too worried.

Arriving on the scene, however, tensions started to rise between a bystander and several security guards, and a fight broke out.

Within minutes Vernon’s entire life changed — and flashed before his eyes. 

“I was not in fight mode, and that I will forever regret. My thought was I need to save the security guard,” Vernon explained to a room full of more than 300 local firefighters, law enforcement officials, emergency medical technicians and other first responders. “I jump over the railing and as (the bystander) hauls back to punch him, I capture his arm, block it, get my body between them and push him back.”

By separating them, it gave the bystander an opportunity to re-group and re-arm.

“We lock eyes and right here … I realize I’m in real trouble.”

The bystander thrust a knife into Vernon’s back, which severed a nerve, and a second stab wound broke his rib and punctured his lung.

“When he pulled the knife out of my chest, all the air in my lung went out sideways and it knocked the wind out of me,” Vernon said. Vernon doubled over and missed a third stab attempt to the head. 

His partner, Alex Wallbrett, stepped in and was stabbed three times.

Though Vernon got better physically, he realized it was just the beginning of his healing process, which would lead to his post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis.

For weeks he experienced nightmares, was not sleeping and got more and more aggressive and jumpy.

“I’m not OK,” he said, once people started asking him how he was doing mentally, “but I can ask for mental health help and no one will make fun of me.”

“We have the same stigmas in the south that you have here: you don’t ask for mental health help, and if you do, you are weak.”

It was a stigma several speakers and health officials tried to break Oct. 22 during the first Mental Health Symposium put on by Kern County Public Health Services at Bakersfield College. 

For the first time, a request was made statewide to help law enforcement officials who went through significant distress trying to evacuate victims following the Camp Fire in Northern California in 2018, and Kern County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services officials responded to the call, explained Jeff Fariss, program manager of Emergency Medical Services. That helped shed light on how first responders deal with mental health and was the catalyst for the symposium.

“I carry the spirits of many patients every day,” said Fariss, who was a first responder for 30 years. Several others participating in the symposium could agree with that statement.

Vernon said when he began his career with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, “You’d come to me and say, ‘Hey I’m really struggling mentally,’ I would have been the one to say, ‘Hey, suck it up, buttercup, it’s what you signed up for.'”

After his attack and the years of seeking help from a psychologist — who he says saved his life — his outlook on mental health is completely different. He underwent eye movement desensitization and reprocessing treatment to help with his PTSD, and the nightmares passed and he finally let go of many traumatic events that were haunting him.

“Getting stabbed was the best thing that could have happened,” he said.

Kern County Fire Department Capt. Robert Hudson also shared that his son’s suicide from August was a situation he didn’t know how to handle, despite responding to similar calls on the job in the past. But he had to address his emotions in order to build up his strength and move on.

“In order to heal, we have to get a little uncomfortable,” he said, quoting his son, Andrew. “We do PT (physical training) to be prepared physically for the job, but what about MT (mental training)? … What are we doing to deal with the traumas and damages that need to be healed with each one of us?”

After listening to the day’s speakers, several first responders had the opportunity to reflect and see if they’re suffering mentally and if they need to reach out for help.

“I’ve had some troubling calls in my 24-plus years and things have bothered me mentally,” said Bakersfield Fire Department Deputy Chief John Frando. “Don’t be shy to let your guard down, it doesn’t make you less of a person.”

From www.bakersfield.com