First responders are never truly ready for what could happen any given day, and no one knows that better than Jeff Fariss, who was in the field for 30 years.
He also knows the lasting effects — most specifically post-traumatic stress disorder — that can affect men and women in the field who are exposed to situations and scenes that an average person does not see, such as horrific accidents, child and elder abuse, suicides and devastation.
"I have experienced PTSD on numerous occasions and dealt with it myself," he said.
It's been 11 years since Fariss left the field, but PTSD is still an important issue to him. He chose not to seek professional help, and "somehow I came out the other side still sane." Others are not so lucky.
Many first responders deal with a stigma that if they’re not tough enough to handle some of the worst events one can see, they need to leave the field. But Fariss, program manager of Emergency Medical Services, as well as others, know that's not true and believe "it's time" to speak up, address mental health and seek help.
Kern County Public Health Services is hosting the first Mental Health Symposium Tuesday at Bakersfield College's indoor auditorium with hopes of helping first responders and community members recognize the signs and symptoms of depression caused by PTSD.
The free symposium begins at 9 a.m., and those interested in attending can register at https://bcstudentlife.wufoo.com/forms/q1iqwk0g0fqm8ik/
According to statistics provided by Kern County Public Health Services, it is estimated that 30 percent of first responders will suffer from PTSD compared with 20 percent of the general population. A recent study shows that paramedics, EMTs and firefighters were reported to have higher suicide ideation and suicide attempt rates than the rest of society. Additionally, estimates suggest between 125 and 300 police officers die by suicide every year.
Professionals felt it was necessary to "do something to provide them with the support they need," said Michelle Corson, public relations officer for Public Health.
More so, though there are resources available to first responders, the topic of mental health has not always been discussed so openly and freely and this symposium is one way to begin the conversation.
"They see these horrid scenes and have to manage them, and over time it can have a definite effect on your mental health and lead to PTSD," Fariss explained. "The reason we’re doing this is trying to bring to light that while, yes, we’re first responders and chose this career, we’re also human beings. People tend to forget that, and even those in the business tend to forget that."
Also for the first time, a request was made statewide to help law enforcement officials who went through a lot of distress trying to evacuate victims following the Camp Fire in Northern California in 2018, and Behavioral Health officials responded to the call, which helped shed light on the subject, he explained.
Both Corson and Fariss are hoping the symposium becomes an annual event because it's important that people know help is out there.
"It’s OK to be human and it’s OK to reach out and talk to somebody," Fariss said. "It’s time that we uncork the bottle and let the genie out and bring this to light."