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Special Report | Mental health conversations for first responders

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They’re real life heroes. The ones who show up to help when we need it most. But, an emerging crisis begs the question , what happens when first responders need a hero of their own?

“We have the most noble profession there is, but I don’t think people understand the toll it takes on us and the toll it takes on our families overtime,” Aldo Morelli, a Captain with the Harrisburg Bureau of Fire, says.

All week we’ve highlighting what’s become a crisis across the commonwealth. PTSD and high suicide rates among first responders. It’s a discussion helping to change work place culture and how we think about mental health.

"When I first came on, you just toughed it out," veteran firefighter, Leon Cliatt, says. “You know, you pushed it down and kept moving; and now there is a lot of help.”

Last year there were more suicides by first responders than there were in the line of duty deaths in Pennsylvania.

“Twenty years ago, we would not be having this conversation,” Brian Bastinelli, a Captain with the Harrisburg Bureau of Fire, tells CBS21 News. “This would have been something that you handled on your own, if you handled it at all.”

Strides are being taken to bring the conversation about mental health within in the ranks of first responders to the forefront; but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“We’re all human. We’re all have those feelings and we all have the ability to react differently to stress,” State Fire Commissioner, Bruce Trego, says. “The biggest message that I could get to them is, don’t be afraid to talk with someone.”

Pennsylvania currently does not have protocol to prevent, mitigate, or treat the mental and psychological wounds that may be inflicted on first responders in the course of their work.

“When we grab someone from a building and we’re able to pull them out, I feel I’m giving them a chance. After that, you know, it’s in God’s hands,” Captain Morelli, says. “You go through incredible highs and incredible lows. When you pull someone out and you think, possibly they’re alive and you find out they didn’t make it, that sucks. That’s terrible."

“It’s weighed heavily on our firefighters, on all of us because we weren’t able to give them that chance. We feel like failures a lot of times," Captain Morelli adds. "We feel like we failed and that guilt, those ghosts, we carry that with us.”

A recent report from SR-6 Commission recommends the State Department of Health spearheads and effort to develop mental wellness and stress management protocol to assist first responders.

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