BALTIMORE — There’s no question that being a police officer or firefighter is a dangerous job, but more first responders die of suicide than are killed working.
Mounting research points to untreated post-traumatic stress disorder as a main cause. Some Marylanders are trying to reverse the trend.
“As a young cop, you’re putting your mouth to a dead child’s lips, and trying to give them CPR. We had a young 15-year-old shot five times in the back and we’re covered in his blood, his brain matter and everything is coming out,” Rick Williard said. “When the nightmares started happening, in dreams, I would wake up think about the 17-year-old girl that stabbed her mother to death and every scene of that house.”
Williard is former Baltimore City police officer recovering from PTSD, triggered by constant exposure to violence. It was pushed to the edge after he fatally shot a 20-year-old during a running gun battle near the now demolished Murphy Homes in 2005.
“There comes a breaking point, and the shooting was a breaking point, and I didn’t realize it at the time,” Willard said. “On a personal level, it led me to divorce. I had a wonderful family, kids, life (and) beautiful house. It led me to very low points, where I had a gun in mouth at one point. You just want things to end, to go away from it all.”
The latest studies reveal 108 police suicides, 116 firefighter suicides a year, often triggered by PTSD. It is the leading cause of death for first responders.
“It’s as high, if not higher than in the veteran’s population,” said Dr. Abby Morris.
Morris is the director of a first of its kind, in-patient PTSD treatment center that just opened in Prince George’s County. It was created by the International Association of Firefighters, run by private medical company, Advanced Recovery Systems.
For their privacy, WBAL-TV 11 News didn’t film patients that were there from across the country, seeking help.
“I have to remind these guys all the time; they’re firefighters, they’re heroes, and part of what we do here, is focus on the fact they’re firefighters, but they came into this world human,” Morris said.
Morris, who’s also worked with police, said PTSD affects at least one in five active-duty police and firefighters. The new center in Maryland just scratches the surface.
“Divorce is high in this population. Suicide is very high in this population. Alcohol addiction is high in this population because there’s never been a lot of support that’s even been put into place within this brotherhood,” Morris said.
“When you work on the streets of Baltimore for 20 years you have a lot of brothers and sisters,” Williard said. “I want to be there for family to talk to them.”
Williard is now turning his trauma into action, launching copstress.com — a peer to peer support group, offering immediate help by phone.
“A lot of times it’s just having someone to talk to who understands what you’re feeling,” Williard said. “If I help one person, get through things in their life, it helps not only that person, it helps their family (and) it helps society.”