DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Public safety advocates are sounding the alarm on the increasing number of first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress and mental illness.
In a study by the renowned Ruderman Family Foundation, new data reveals police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. Specifically, researchers found there were at least 103 firefighter suicides and 140 police officer suicides in 2017, versus 93 firefighters and 129 police officers losing their lives on the job.
"It seems there's still a lingering of pick up yourself by your bootstraps and get to the next call, tough guy kind of mentality," Michael Rafidi, a Durham County EMS paramedic, lamented to the ABC11 I-Team. "That needs to change society-wise and in our community as well."
Rafidi, a former custodian, joined Durham County EMS four years ago, and said that he expected the physical rigors of long shifts and late nights. What he did not expect, however, was the emotional toll the job would take on himself or his family. Too many times, he said, there were traumatic events that he can't "un-see."
"Child abuse calls, elderly abuse, child death calls, gunshot wounds and things like that," he explained. "They kind of stay with you."
To treat these emotional wounds, Rafidi enlisted in a new program to the Triangle called Firstline, a faith-based 13-week course offering an opportunity to "experience breakthrough in your journey to heal from stress and trauma."
The program, founded by former first responders, quickly reached capacity at its first meeting at Durham's New Horizon Church.
"Anytime that you have something broken, you have to understand why it's broken before you can fix it," Jim Starlin, the course's leader and practitioner, asserted to ABC11. "It's a hard job, these people are trained and top notch people, but they're still human beings and we need to address that our mental health is important."
Because the first program was so successful, Starlin said he will begin another 13-week course starting August 16 in Durham. "We provide a meal at every meeting and child care for every meeting. I say that the trauma does not impact solely the first responder - it impacts everyone involved with that person."
The American Psychiatric Association lists the federal Disaster Distress Helpline as another resource for first responders, who can call 1-800-985-5990 or text "TalkWithUs" to 66746. It is a national hotline of behavioral health experts who provide year-round, free and confidential disaster crisis counseling. The Fire Fighters Behavioral Health Alliance also has a variety of resources designed specifically to help first responders.
The PTSD Foundation of America also offers a First Responders PTSD Assessment for those who may want to learn more about the symptoms they may be experiencing.