The Spotlight series highlights individuals in first responder life who have felt an impact, made an impact, and shared an impact with others. We need to share our stories to know we’re not alone and we can do this… together!
Caroline: Today, I’m speaking with Keith Hanks. Keith is a former firefighter of 21 years. Keith now speaks out about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and the need for mental health preparedness in first responder roles. He also works with the Sunday Group as a peer support group, is the Director of Business Development here at First Responder Coaching, and a coach himself (having been my one and only classmate.)
Keith, how are you today?
Keith: I’m really good. I’m glad we’re talking.
Caroline: You have a ton to your story, but for today, we’re just going to talk about the mental health impact of firefighting, how it bleeds into personal lives, and what to do about it. That’s already a lot right there. That said, you grew up in a firefighter family and joined the department right after your 18th birthday. How much did you know or expect with regard to the mental tole of the job at that time?
Keith: None. Growing up in my family, my uncles in particular, always watching them go to calls, we were always told that you’re going to see bad things. It was no surprise to me. I wasn’t naïve to the fact that I was going to see bad things, but we had no clue how to handle how those bad things were going to affect us when they did, not even ‘if’ but when they did – more so how they affected our lives. There was no clue back then. That was 1996 so things have changed a little bit but not enough. But we had no clue, no clue at all.
Caroline: Did you see changes happen in your family members as they got into firefighting?
Keith: With my family, the changes were already established. Everyone here had generational trauma. For everyone in my family, the tradition being a firefighter goes back to 1875. The job had affected my mother’s brothers, their father, his father… In my family, we were already having effects. We already had alcoholism in the family, abuse, mental illness, and suicide attempts. So, it was already there but we just didn’t think about it. I never really thought of the things that were happening as being mental health problems. A lot of people had them. Most everyone on the fire department drank. There was beer in the fridge when I was growing up at the fire house. It was just, ‘You work hard, you play hard.’
Caroline: It was so normalized.
Keith: Very, very. And it’s really starting to break apart these days but there’s parts of it that are still normalized. But back then, that’s just the way it was. I didn’t look at my family as having issues until I grew up and started to realize that I was starting to have those issues.
Caroline: When did it start to hit you the hardest and when did you notice that you needed help? Those might be two different moments.
Keith: Honestly, they almost go hand-in-hand. Right around 2002, when I was married to my first wife, Heather, I started having a lot of problems. I was firefighting and doing private EMS full time. I was working 60-80 hours a week. So, I was seeing a lot of stuff and right after my oldest daughter was born, I started having a lot of issues. I was getting angry, and I was lashing out a lot. I was having a lot of control issues. Towards the Fall of 2002, I started getting some help for it. It wasn’t the proper help, but it was just like, ‘Go talk to someone.’
The following April, I really knew there was no line between the job and my personal life. Heather was killed in a car accident. I was out of work for almost a month and a half after. Trying to pick up the pieces from a situation that was so easily comparable to my job, because it was a car accident… it had so many ripple effects across both my professional and my personal life for a very long time to the point that I felt like such a failure with the kids because Mommy was dead, and I was still alive. Almost immediately after the accident, I started withdrawing from my kids. Never mind the fact that every time I went to work, and I did a car accident, I was at my car accident, because I was in the car accident when Heather died. I was driving.
So, the ripple effects at the time were unbelievable and the only thing I had at the time was grief counseling, which was appropriate, but for everything else there was nothing. No one knew what to do. No one said, ‘Hey, sounds like you might have PTSD.’ Those words weren’t thrown around then. So, I was just swimming in the ocean, trying to keep myself afloat, couldn’t tell where the shore was at that point for a very long time.
Caroline: You had quite the rollercoaster of events in your life I know. What was the biggest turnaround for you that started getting you back up again?
Keith: It was a long while after all that. Honestly, it was years later in 2015, a few ambulance services later, and I was now working for a fire department in Lancaster, Mass. They had a line of duty death in, ironically, 2003, right around Thanksgiving. Their department had gone through the On-Site Academy in Westminster. It’s like a retreat. They do some therapy modalities, but it’s mainly holistic. It’s kind of a place to get away. When I was having issues again, the chief recommended I go there. That was the first time I was told I have PTSD. Up until that point, we only heard about veterans coming back having it. That was my first taste of, ‘Maybe I’m not bipolar. Maybe I’m not just depressed. Maybe this is something else.’
At that point, I was married to my wife, Adele, and everything was suffering. Come the end of 2015, with what I went through with On-Site and the time I spent at McLean’s Hospital, I end up losing about four and a half to five months to therapy alone (in-patient and day programs) [while] not working, just to get my life back on track. It was at the end of 2015, being at McLean’s, having a trauma therapist, that I really started to make forward motion consistently.
Caroline: You have many, many events that we don’t have time to talk about here. You’ve seen the effects from starting out in a fire fighter family where everything was normalized, all the way through trauma after trauma… and to finally hear, “This is what we need to do about this.” And here you are now at the core of a group seeking to change all this, First Responder Coaching. After seeing this big picture, what do you think are the expectations for first responders going into the field now? Is there any improvement?
Keith: I think there’s more being done. I know there’s more being done. Throughout all the contacts I have, I know in both the Mass Fire Academy and New Hampshire Fire Academy, and this is just fire, the recruits are being given lectures on the tolls of the job mentally and they are talking about PTSD. There is more being done, but unfortunately a lot of the time what we’re hearing either from the people who run these programs or the recruits who go through them… “Yeah, I sat through the class because I had to be in the class.” So, it becomes part of like learning to become a fire fighter; you learn about fire behavior, you’ve got to absorb this stuff. A lot of the stuff just falls through.
I think more is being done at the beginning levels, but that’s just firefighting. I know that nothing EMS-wise is really being done. Once you’re in, you need (at least in MA and NH) so many mental health credits for your re-certification. So, it’s slowly happening, but in the first responder world, we do what we have to do so we can get it done; a lot of it’s not being absorbed.
Caroline: Do you notice any improvement in the response to those who experience trauma and how they come through it with the increase in resources?
Keith: I think it’s like a spectrum. It depends on what that person’s trauma history is. They’re finding that, at least with men, 75% of first responders have childhood trauma. So, before they even get to the job, they’re bringing something to the table. So, I guess it really depends. There’s always going to be those men and women with the one call that, “Wow, yeah, that broke me. Now I’m having nightmares.” And they’re able to work through it. Since I’m no longer on the job, to honestly answer it, I can only refer to people’s experiences that I know.
It’s not like, “Get out,” if you mentioned PTSD. But you don’t get as much support when it comes to mental well-being as if you came forward and said, “I have cancer.” Everyone would be there baking you meals and mowing your lawn. You say you have mental illness and they’re like, “All right, well, we’ll give you a list of resources and get better.” I guess the answer is there are more resources, the resources aren’t always known, and the support to get people to those resources isn’t as strong as it could be.
Caroline: I think the response from the average joe when they hear, “I was just diagnosed with cancer,” is to reach out and help. But if you say the words ‘mental health,’ it’s like, “Woah, sorry to hear about that, bro. Go get some help.”
Keith: It’s weird because we all have brains, right? We can all be subjected to trauma and it’s one of the most un-talked about things. With certain medical conditions and diseases that happen, you have to have certain things to get them. Not everyone’s going to get cancer, not everyone’s going to get diabetes, not everyone’s going to get arthritis, whatever it is. We all have brains, so every person has the potential to get it or least be affected by the job. It just blows my mind that there are still people out there that are like, “nope.”
Caroline: Speaking about the views of mental health, what do you think it would take for people to stop seeing it as a weakness and start seeing it as a part of ourselves that we need to take care of? You’ve mentioned before that it’s like going to the gym. We need to go to a mental gym to make sure we’re keeping ourselves mentally fit.
Keith: I think it’s going to start with having those conversations. It goes back to what I said initially. I don’t know anyone who got on the job thinking they weren’t going to be involved in bad stuff. I don’t know anyone on the job that was like, “I’m going to go and be a fire fighter 50-60 hours a week and an EMT another 40 hours a week and I’m not going to get tired; I’m not going to get hurt, I’m going to be safe all the time.” No one has that mindset.
So, I think part of it is starting the process of healthy conversations from the beginning of the career. There is a certain personality, that goes with becoming a first responder. That’s why it’s less than 1% of the population like the military. There are only certain people who can do the job. We’re finding out that most of those people are already traumatized. A lot of it comes back to already being that underdog and wanting to try to help people so they don’t have to be the underdog. Because no one helped you, you want to get in a job where you can help people.
A lot of this is going to change when we start having those proactive conversations in the beginning of the career before all the bad calls happen, before we start drinking and drugging, before we start getting an abusive relationship or whatever else it may be. It’s all about starting that conversation before it all hits the fan.
Caroline: Talk about how you got involved in First Responder Coaching.
Keith: I belong to a lot of different groups, first responder groups, PTSD, on social media. I joined a bunch back in October. Soon, I got a private message from Jen Anderson. I had no idea who she was. She said, “Hey, I read your bio and I see what you’re doing. We share a common goal, and I was wondering if we could talk more.”
Some time goes by, and we end up communicating by text and phone and we set a time to meet at a local coffee shop. She just laid out everything. She talked about her husband, Kevin, his law enforcement career, how it ended because of PTSD, and what she had to do to pick up those pieces and become the powerhouse that she is for her family. It was coaching that allowed her to do that. Her story is very inspirational and, because of everything I’ve been through, it really hit deep with me.
She made it pretty clear what she wanted from me. There was conversation about if I wanted to be a coach, she’d make me a coach, but that isn’t really what she needed me for. Because of who I am and what I do, she needed me to spread this resource. And that’s exactly what coaching is; it’s a resource.
So, we started working on exactly who she wants me to be for FRC and that ended being what I currently am, the Director of Business Development. Part of that is because of what I do, how public I am about what I say and advocate for. Between what I do for public speaking, presentations, podcasts, social media, it was sort of a no-brainer. With what I do with peer support, I was basically already coaching. The opportunity to go through more training was right up my ally. I’ve always been about training and further educating.
When I started doing the coaching class, I was able to learn more about being able to have those deeper conversations. Upon that was also me being coached by Jen. With what coaching is, we were able to set up those obtainable goals and I started seeing what coaching could actually do for myself. I was able to start experiencing things in my own life that were changing because I was doing them. I was having these conversations and setting these goals and having these different perspectives.
That’s led us to where we are today. A lot of my job is to network at conferences and expos or reach out to departments and agencies. At this point, because of COVID, there’s a lot of resources that aren’t available. With coaching, it’s at a perfect time to get this out to show people there is a way to do this before we get to crisis. There’s a way to maintain your lives as a first responder family before it gets to the point where people are getting divorced or leaving the job or spending $300 a night on booze or whatever it may be. There are ways to navigate this, and coaching is the forefront, navigating that lifestyle just through having conversations and learning different perspectives.
Caroline: Coaching really does bring a whole new perspective to not only those being coached but also how to get help and how to pull those solutions out of yourself. It’s more empowering than going to therapy. Therapy is necessary sometimes, but this is a whole different ball of wax.
Keith: It opens that line of communication within the first responder family, so it may be what leads that person to figuring out they need therapy. Otherwise, maybe without having coaching, they didn’t realize these things are affecting them like they are. If you aren’t able to resolve them in coaching, maybe you do need therapy. It’s so multifaceted with what it can do with a first responder family. It’s a powerful tool.
Caroline: Absolutely. So, this business itself is really only a year old, right?
Keith: One year as of Valentine’s Day.
Caroline: It’s amazing seeing how much it’s growing. Every time I speak to someone, I explain to them what coaching is and that this is specific to first responders. What’s the difference between regular life coaching and first responder life coaching?
Keith: Jen’s coaching model focuses specifically on the first responder community. A lot of other life coaching businesses will coach first responders but coaching kind of got its start in the business world. That’s where a lot of it still lies so there’s not another company that does specifically and only first responders. Also, all the coaches [from FRC] come from a first responder background. So, there’s already that common ground between the coaches and the coaching partners for each coaching relationship.
Anyone who’s been in the first responder world will tell you that we all look differently upon anyone who does any other job. We always look differently on bankers, real estate agents, landscapers, whatever it is. We’re always the best of the best. We do this job and the only people who get what we do are those who do it. A lot of times, those of us on the job, we become so self-absorbed with that idea that no one else gets what we do.
Having someone that comes from that background is going to help you with conversation or seeing a different perspective. It’s going to aide that first responder or their family to be able to talk to a coach that has a similar background, whether they’re a first responder themselves or a family member. Those who are part of it understands that mentality. You can’t go at a first responder like you do a banker or anyone else. We have our guard up all the time; we’re always reading people. So, to be able to talk to someone specifically because you have that background is huge. That’s what makes FRC so unique.
Caroline: Yeah, that’s a perfect point. First responders and first responder family members, we have this completely different mentality. We do have our guard up all the time. If someone comes at me with some fluff about talking about my feelings or something like that, they’re not getting much from me. Sometimes those things need to be said and that kind of conversation needs to happen. If you get someone who’s never gone through therapy or gotten help before and they have a coaching session, that’s going to break down a lot of barriers to have the coach be someone who’s also from that mentality. “It’s okay. I speak your language.”
Keith: It’s huge.
Caroline: Was there anything else that you wanted to mention?
Keith: We’re trying to break new ground with this. I’m pretty pumped to be part of this with Jen and the rest of the coaches and admin team at FRC. We’re on the cusp of something really big. Even though we know of more first responder resources, the last two years (partly due to COVID) those resources are harder to get into. I know a lot of people who are looking at six month wait times to get a therapist. For a lot of our families, we can’t wait six months. Six months from now, that person could be divorced, end up in detox, they could be dead, their career could be over.
I think Jen’s whole take on coaching is coming at the perfect time. We see it on the news and social media all the time; first responders or ER doctors and nurses are just walking away. There’s an employment crisis across the first responder world. Just near me, the applicant rate has dropped 60% in two years. They used to have more people than they had spots. Now they’re not getting half that. There’re always spots, there’s no retention, people take early retirement…
When I first got on, people were doing 35–40-year careers. Now, guys get out at 15-20. I got out at 21. There’s no longevity because we’re not maintaining the people. They’re like, “You signed on for this. You’re going to see bad stuff. You saw bad stuff? Can’t do the job anymore? Bye.” For a while, they could replace that person; now they can’t. Now departments are running ten people less. It’s a crisis. If word could get out about FRC and coaching, I really think a lot of people could better their lives and their careers.
Caroline: It would be nice to see a turnaround happen with people keeping their careers, their own sanity, their marriages, and keeping their lives especially. No one’s going to worry that they’re seen as weak or a failure because they asked for help. It would be nice to see FRC and similar groups step up to build that support.
Keith: Something needs to change.
Caroline: Yes, and things are, at least in the background. Where do you see FRC going in the next five years?
Keith: It’s funny, we just talked about this the other day because of the people we’re networking with. Honestly, in five years, I see this as being a nationwide thing. That’s why I’ve given myself to what my position is. With everything I’m doing, I truly believe that if more people can learn about what coaching can do in their lives, it could really shift everything. In five years, given what we’ve done in a month, I would say coaching is going nationwide. Maybe not in every department, or even every state, but it’s going to be nationwide because it’s so needed.
It’s like going to a restaurant. When the food is really good or really bad, you tell people. I know where to go for a really good turkey dinner where I live, because word-of-mouth spreads. In the first responder community, we’re big, but we’re really small. All it’s going to take is people saying, “Hey, this thing was happening in my life, and I started having these proactive conversations and learning different perspectives and it changed for the better.”
As tough as we try to portray ourselves, especially us bucket heads and law enforcement and military, we have a hard time admitting it, but I’ve always wanted to be happier than I was. I’ve always wanted to be able to love more people than I was able to because of the barriers I had up. But we won’t admit it. None of us would do the job we do if we didn’t love people and want to help. We all sign up for it. Once people start seeing and hearing and feeling these experiences, it’s just going to take off. Everyone wants to feel better. As miserable as some people can be, no one wants to be miserable. I really hope for people to get the benefit of living a better life.
Caroline: I can see it happening. There are already connections across the country, and more are being made every day.
Keith, thanks so much for joining me. We look forward to seeing FRC’s progress and all the things to come, much that can’t be mentioned yet, but so exciting!
Keith: Yes, thanks for having me.
Caroline: Readers, check out Keith’s posts on Facebook, and all FRC posts on our Facebook page and website for more about PTSD, resources, encouragement, and what’s going on in FRC!