Victims and witnesses of traumatic events often experience stress. (Courtesy of 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund)
Victims and witnesses of traumatic events often experience stress. (Courtesy of 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund)

A 55-year-old case worker walked into a rat-infested apartment that contained a hot plate, small refrigerator and a third grader whose teeth were black because they had not been brushed in months.

A Baltimore City police officer walked into his house a few years ago and spotted his wife standing with a gun to her head and she pulled the trigger.

Night after night doctors and nurses greet screaming ambulances with blood-stained patients who attempted to take their own lives or in recent months, they have ferried people gasping for air only hours before they die of COVID-19.

But those on the front lines of this carnage often struggle with emotional problems like those they are helping, experts are finding.

According to a national nonprofit that tracks first responder suicide deaths, in 2019, there were more than 200 reported officer suicides and 133 confirmed firefighter deaths across the nation.

Since 1975, National Suicide Prevention Awareness Week been observed from Sept. 6-12 and is taking on new meaning in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, race-charged social unrest and weariness from the drumbeat of 24-hour breaking news.

“There is a direct connection between what is going today and the fact that the number of suicides in first responder community is up,” said John Wordin, founder of the LifeAid Initiative. “There is no national program for police and first responders no program to help them with the stress of being first responders.”

According to its mission statement, LifeAid offers veterans, first responders and their families “opportunities …to heal the brain, reduce pain, and restore purpose.”

Amid protest and social unrest, Wordin to start healing dialogues in strife-torn communities.

Cost of Social ‘Awakening’

On Sept. 11, Wordin and Rev. Charles Jackson, pastor of the Macedonia Baptist Church in Daphne, Ala. hosted a multiracial town hall meeting in which they were able to mediate a dispute between African American and white cheerleaders over a dispute about a white cheerleader who publicly embraced support for slavery advocates.

“One thing about the George Floyd incident is that it has created an awakening,” Wordin said. “People are learning that you can be a white conservative but it doesn’t mean that you don’t believe that all men are not created and that there equal just under law. “

Michelle Lee, a chaplain with the Baltimore Police Department, said, “On the 19th anniversary of the worst terrorist acts in American History. I still believe in my heart that in the midst of this reign of terror, God was there that morning. He was at the World Trade Centers in New York. He was in Shanksburg, Pa. He was at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C./Arlington Va.

“It is important that first responders feel like they have someone to talk to with all of the trauma they see all day,” said Lee, who is a minister at Walk by Faith Ministries in Baltimore especially in the face of the risk of taking COVID home to their families.

Lee said for police officers this is a deeply troubling time in which they risk catching COVID-19 and taking it home. “There is an extra layer of danger.”

Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the...

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