JONESVILLE, N.Y. (NEWS10) — There is a first-of-its-kind effort underway in New York to help those who help us. A mental health committee for first responders and the military has been formed with the goal of getting them support before it’s too late.

Photo credit: Brandon Rowback

First responder suicides are a growing problem made worse by the pandemic. But to save lives, it takes the people on the front lines to open up and be a part of the solution. Some who got help in time are breaking the stigma, now turning pain into promise for others.

Brandon Rowback is one of those people who wants to make a difference after dealing with his own struggles in the fire service. Rowback has been a firefighter since 2004. First, five years in the Marines, then fire service in the Air National Guard based in Scotia.

“This is a lifestyle. This is my passion,” Rowback said. He has served overseas multiple times, but being deployed with the Guard to the international airport in Kuwait—helping to get U.S. service members killed in action back home—stands out in his mind. He said, “One of my greatest honors was actually being able to do that with those guys.”

Rowback had to leave the military because of an injury, but he was able to become a civilian firefighter with the Stratton Air National Guard Base in Scotia. He also serves with the Corinth and Jonesville fire departments. He is a ski and snowboard instructor and raises money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Service is a calling he got from his father, a volunteer firefighter for three decades. But in Rowback’s dream job, some things have rarely been spoken. “You get done with a really bad call, a 96-year-old you had to do chest compressions on. She had a cardiac arrest. You feel things,” Rowback said. “But then afterward you get back to the station and people start talking about what they want to do for lunch.”

“Historically, in emergency services, the mindset has always been that first responders are always OK, that this stuff doesn’t really affect us,” said Dr. Drew Anderson. Not only a psychologist and a UAlbany psychology professor, Anderson offers a unique perspective because he’s also a volunteer firefighter. He said that a certain percentage of first responders will fall victim to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) given the nature of the job.

Rowback was blindsided when it suddenly affected him off duty. “Literally, a light switched off. I didn’t care if I was alive. I didn’t care what was going on,” Rowback bravely confessed. He admits his dog Koda was the only thing that kept him hanging on. He said, “If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

Rowback ended up fearing the job he had loved. He hid his struggle until his fire chief sent over retired Cohoes Fire Captain, Will Charbonneau, to swap stories with the guys at the firehouse.

Photo credit: Brandon Rowback

Charbonneau shared, “I’m the guy that’s been on that call and this call. I’m the guy that ended up divorced, and I’m also the guy who had to retire because of PTSD.” Charbonneau says the room went quiet, but Rowback heard him loud and clear.

Rowback recalled, “It was that light bulb for me. Hey, I can relate. He understands what I’m going through. I can let it go.” Charbonneau remarked, “The guy I least expected to open up that day admitted he was struggling too.”

Charbonneau—who courageously sought professional help to process his own harsh memories through his own drawings and psychotherapy treatment—is now helping others, like Rowback, heal. He took some mental health training courses to be of more assistance to others like him and knows this is life-saving work.

It meant everything to Rowback, who said, “I don’t know if you can really quantify how much it means to have somebody who’s been there, that’s done that, that was willing to be that vulnerable person with us.”

As Dr. Anderson explained, “The Capital District has lost several EMS professionals and paramedics to suicide in the last few years.” He points out that repeated trauma leaves little time for first responders to process and heal. “I like to use the analogy that when people break a leg, they put on a cast and let it sit for some time, and give it time to heal. However, with first responders,” Anderson said, “it’s like you’re running on a broken leg.”

The lack of processing time with so many traumatic memories happening over a short period of time can lead to mental health struggles for EMS workers. Anderson explained, “A recent survey found one in five will have suicidal thoughts.”

Charbonneau had those thoughts and knows that mental health and physical health must go hand in hand. He said, “Mental controls physical, you start to feel bad,  you start to eat wrong, sleep wrong, everything goes bad.” Charbonneau and Dr. Anderson are now among a group of people from all different disciplines—including health care workers, EMS workers, law enforcement, and the military—coming together to be part of a first-ever, statewide mental health committee for first responders. 

In its early stages but meeting virtually through the pandemic, the committee aims to bring about a cultural shift, according to Anderson. In other words, they want to pull the issue out of the shadows and acknowledge that the issue can arise. Second, focusing on prevention is another goal, by educating workers that PTSD—or depression or other mental health struggles—is just as much an occupational hazard as a physical injury might be. Third, the goal is to build a network of providers in New York to treat those in need and provide for privacy to eliminate any fear of getting help.

The committee is still trying to figure out its funding source, because it’s not technically a state-run committee, at this point. They hope to spread awareness, offering help and treatment when trouble arises for first responders and members of the military. Anderson explains, “Psychology has interventions. We have treatments for PTSD. They’re effective.”

Meanwhile, Rowback is forever grateful to Charbonneau and wants to use his voice to help others, now, too. ”It’s not something to be ashamed of, to be afraid of, or get discouraged from it,” Rowback shared. “When you realize there is something going on, reach out, because it will save your life. I’m glad that this chapter is being written now.”