September 1st, 2019

Why firefighters need to extinguish the stigma and speak up

New York firefighter Darryl Vandermark on how being a man of more words helps him cope with his PTSD
Mental Health | In the Barber Chair

I don’t know when my PTSD started. I was on the scene at Ground Zero during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and a lot of people assume that’s where my PTSD began but I can think back to other incidences that hit me just as hard. The problem as a first responder is it’s not just one or two incidences but rather chronic exposure that builds up slowly overtime.

My name is Darryl Vandermark and I’ve been a first responder for over 28 years. I’m the former Deputy Fire Coordinator (Chief) of the Orange County HAZMAT/WMD Response Team,  current Fire Instructor, and active volunteer Firefighter.
I spent over 28 years bottling up my PTSD, trying to hide from the world. That continued until I could no longer cope and felt it would be better for everyone if I wasn’t around.
I attempted suicide but, in that moment, I realized that I didn’t want to die.
After that happened all I wanted to do was tell everyone what I was going through. And yet, instead, I went down a dark path of trying to hide both the physical and emotional injuries by telling everyone that I got injured on the job. That hurt too. I knew that something was very wrong but I was still hiding.  

Darryl Vandermark, NYC, BLIND BARBERS

First responders are trained in the physical skills: how to get to the scene of an incident, stabilize it  and put out the fireAnd at the end of the work day, I know how to put those physical skills into a file, categorize them, and put them away. 
It’s the emotional skills- everything you see, everything you smell- that we have no way of knowing how to put into a file. Without talking about it and without reaching out for help, there’s no way of dealing with it. That’s where you get the PTSD from.

I had another major breakdown and landed myself in the hospital. During that hospital stay, I had a psychiatrist assess me and say: “you do know that you have PTSD, right?” He explained the signs and symptoms and as he was talking, I began to recognize myself. I knew then that what I was going through was a normal reaction, and that I needed to get help.
In my case, help came in the form of a service dog named Patriot. The PTSD doesn’t go away, it’s something I’ll probably deal with for the rest of my life but Patriot has made life a lot easier for me, by helping me with my “grounding.” Grounding is a process in which a service dog will distract a person going through a PTSD episode by nudging, pawing, and licking, essentially bringing them back to reality.

“I want other first responders to know that there is help out there if you reach out. Don’t be afraid to tell people that you’re struggling because it doesn’t mean that you are “weak.””

There’s a stigma in the world of emergency services that makes you feel like you can’t go back to the station and tell people how you’re feeling about what you just saw or that you’re struggling. Why? because now you’re considered the weakest link. So instead, everyone just stays silent. We call each other a brotherhood, but we still feel this internal pressure to keep our feelings inside.    
The first time I taught a class with Patriot by my side was at the Orange County Fire Training Center. As I was teaching, I shared a personal story to relate the material to the incident and could feel myself starting to get triggered. That’s when Patriot kicked into action and started pawing and nudging me.
At that moment, the room feel silent. We’re used to working with bomb detection dogs, narcotics dogs, etc. but to see a dog helping a firefighter with PTSD is an entirely different story. We took a break, and during that time there was a line of at least 15 firefighters telling me how amazing it was to see and sharing their own personal stories.
I knew from that moment on that if sharing my story could save just one life, then it was worth reliving.  I can’t hide my PTSD when I have a service dog with me. It’s become a conversation starter and a way to talk to other first responders about my struggles and show them that I can still function.  Through that, I want other first responders to know that there is help out there if you reach out. Don’t be afraid to tell people that you’re struggling because it doesn’t mean that you are “weak.” We are everyday warriors and we should be proud, strong, and supportive of our emergencey services brothers and sisters. Extinguish the stigma and speak up! 

If you or someone you know is in crisis, or needs emotional support we urge you to head to for crisis support options. To speak with someone immedietately, contact your local 24-hour support service.