A Second Chance
With every call, volunteer firefighters face inner obstacles more challenging than the flames they battle
By Jennifer Kennedy, Representative
Note: This article deals with topics of a sensitive nature such as suicide that some readers may find disturbing.
OVER THE COURSE OF HIS 16 years as a volunteer firefighter, Martin Pilon has seen his fair share of horrific scenes.
“My mind is often a storm of tormented flashbacks,” says Martin. “I can see, smell, and hear past events as though they have just occurred.”
Late last year, hoping to escape these unwelcomed memories, Martin tried to take his own life. Thankfully, with the support of his loved ones, he has emerged with a new, noble goal.
“I want to inspire others to seek help when they are facing demons of their own, no matter their profession,” he says. “If I can help one person with my story, then it will all be worth it.”
MARTIN WAS INTRODUCED TO FIREFIGHTING at an early age, as his dad volunteered with the City of Clarence-Rockland Fire Department (CRFD) for 30 years. He followed in his father’s footsteps, and for three years he held the position of acting volunteer firefighter captain. As a proud CLAC member, he is active in the union as a steward and Local 920 Board member.
Martin also participates in a peer-to-peer program for CRFD, which supports fellow volunteers who take a leave of absence as a result of a posttraumatic stress injury (PTSI). He has even taken CLAC’s Mental Health First Aid course.
“It really helped me recognize the signs of mental health distress in others and in myself,” he says.
By all accounts, Martin knew the signs and symptoms of the mental health issues associated with his job and had a strong support system at his disposal. But even he was susceptible.
“In November 2019, I began to feel depressed and empty-headed,” he says. “I recognized that something was wrong and reached out for help and began seeing a psychologist.”
But he admits that he didn’t share the whole truth with his psychologist at first.
“I kept so much locked away, hoping the feelings would eventually fade with my memories,” he says.
Martin’s psychologist diagnosed him with PTSI. The news felt to him like a failure.
“Though firefighters are first responders and are often held up as heroes, there is still a lot of stigma around mental health,” he says.
BY JUNE 2020, MARTIN DECIDED to take a temporary leave from the fire station so that he could focus on getting healthy. It was a difficult decision.
“I left behind my comrades, who were like my family and my safety net,” he says.
Though he maintained some connections to his fellow firefighters during that summer, his depression grew worse. Ultimately, he began having thoughts about ending his own life, thinking it would also end his suffering.
“My closest friends and family members could sense that something was wrong, but to everyone else I appeared to be myself,” he says. “I made sure no one would find out about my struggles. I was embarrassed.”
With time, Martin realized that hiding his feelings would not help him get better. In fact, it would do the opposite.
He started talking about his feelings, his depression, and his PTSI with those around him. In time, he realized that he was not alone and that he could actually be an advocate for people just like him.
Unfortunately, Martin had not completely turned the corner on his mental health struggles. His depression came to a head in November 2020.
During a lunch break, he decided to write goodbye letters to those dearest to him, including his parents and his girlfriend, Melanie.
“I felt like I was a burden, especially to Melanie, and that I had no other choice,” he says. “I called, texted, and left messages for those I wanted to say goodbye to. I didn’t think twice.”
Martin tried to take his life that day.
THANKFULLY, HIS ATTEMPT FAILED. When he regained consciousness and realized what he had done, he called for help.
He was taken by ambulance to the hospital. He spoke with therapists and went through a series of tests to ensure that he had no severe injuries before being discharged several hours later.
Martin went home from the hospital in the care of his father, who stayed by his side for two full weeks, providing him with the love and support that he had been craving. With the help of his family and Melanie, Martin came to realize how much people care about him.
“I am truly grateful for each and every one of the people who stuck by me,” he says. “I was adamant that I wanted to get my life back on track. I quickly realized that suicide is not a solution. I knew I had a second chance.”
In the days and weeks that followed, Martin developed a regimented plan with the help of his psychologist. Self-reflection, meditation, exercise, healthy eating habits, and self-care all became his top priorities.
He has been doing much better since that dark day in November. He admits he has a long way to go but remains optimistic.
“I’m working hard to become the best version of myself for both my own health and for my family.”
MARTIN’S CAMPAIGN FOR A SAFER and healthier volunteer firefighter experience has been a long and continuing journey. He is in the process of returning to work and looks forward to helping make improvements to the internal peer-to-peer program at CRFD, based on his own experiences. He was also instrumental in creating PTSI Awareness Day (June 27) after losing a fellow firefighter to suicide.
Martin urges those who work with someone suffering from PTSI to never isolate their colleague, even if they think they are helping by giving them space.
“Not feeling supported by your coworkers, especially for firefighters, can make feelings of loneliness even stronger,” he says. “Having a great support system at a professional and personal level is key to becoming healthy.”
Martin’s fight for mental health awareness continues to this day. For those who are experiencing feelings of depression, he believes it’s always best to reach out for help as soon as possible.
“The moment you start questioning your worth, that’s when you need to tell someone.”
PTSD versus PTSI
In recent years, there has been a push to rename posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to posttraumatic stress injury (PTSI). PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have witnessed a traumatic event.
By renaming PTSD to PTSI, the focus shifts from the person experiencing the trauma to the injury that it has caused. Though there is still some debate, many physicians, psychologists, and news agencies have begun to use the term PTSI rather than PTSD.
Sources: csdpool.org, jmvh.org