On the day that former Forsyth County Firefighter Matthew Jones was thrown out of his house by his wife, his parents were sure that he was going to kill himself.
Jones had been heading down a dark path for a long time, but according to his mother, Sharon, this seemed final, different, scary.
“That night he went to the woods and of course we were scared to death that he was going to kill himself,” Sharon Jones said. “The only thing that kept Matthew alive was a dog that he had with him. Eventually he came to our house and it was months of him lying in bed, crying and drinking.”
Once a seasoned firefighter, with hundreds, if not thousands of hours of training and years of experience responding to the worst situations imaginable, Matthew Jones had been broken after living through one of his nightmares -- failing to save a boy who drowned in a neighborhood pool.
Sharon Jones was scared for good reason. According to statistics from the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance and the U.S. Fire Administration, in 2017 the suicide rate of firefighters and EMT outpaced deaths of on-duty firefighters.
The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance reports that more than 111 firefighters and EMTs died from suicide in the United States in 2017, while the U.S. Fire Administration reports that 87 firefighters died while on duty that same year.
The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance has been tracking, reporting and validating the deaths of firefighters since 2010 and estimate that the true statistic could be much higher. So far in 2018, they have recorded the suicides of 59 firefighters and 17 EMTs.
But as dark as things got, Jones said that he never got to the point where suicide was really an option for him. After the drowning in 2012, he tried to make being a firefighter work, tried pushing memories of the little boy in the ambulance away, and finally tried to numb everything at the bottom of a bottle.
In less than two months after pretending to be alright, coping and becoming increasingly erratic, Jones broke down, told his mom what he had been experiencing and at her urging he called in sick for work and saw a doctor for the first time.
At his first doctor’s appointment, Jones was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and on Nov. 14, 2012, he was approved for 12 weeks of medical leave through the Family Medical Leave Act by the Forsyth County Fire Department.
Matthew Jones said that beyond the terrible side effects of PTSD, like random crying episodes, insomnia and nightmares, a huge hurdle he had to get over was the perceived taboo of having PTSD. He felt wrong and ashamed for having it. In his mind, Jones hadn’t done anything beyond following orders and helping people in any way that he could.
“I felt like, ‘It’s only military, nobody else has (PTSD),’” Jones said. “I didn’t do anything, I didn’t shoot anybody, I didn’t see blood and guts like that.”
THE WEIGHT OF RESPONDING
This multi-part series examines how post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, affects local first responders, to tell their stories and see how they cope with a problem that’s just now being truly uncovered.
This week examines how former Forsyth County firefighter Matthew Jones left the fire department and his struggle to get help for his PTSD.
Next week, the FCN concludes Jones’ story and examines what experts in Georgia say about getting help for post-traumatic stress.
“If we do this right in the beginning”
Experts agree that the shame Jones felt at his PTSD diagnosis is common with first responders who are diagnosed with or have untreated post-traumatic stress.
According to Dr. Nancy Wesselink, founder of One Source Counseling and Employee Assistance Services, tackling those emotions early on, or before they happen if possible, is key for critical incident stress management.
Wesselink, who has spent the last 25 years working with public safety organizations in the greater Atlanta area to provide mental health services, said that helping first responders out before they actually need help is what she strives for.
“If we do this right in the beginning, it really eliminates a lot of that down the road,” she said. “People tend to get a whole lot better if it’s done well, and it’s done correctly and effectively; that’s the key.”
When Jones began his 12 weeks of FMLA leave in 2012, he fully expected to come back to the department.
“I had full intentions of coming back. But the more (my PTSD) progressed, the more I almost had to accept that that wasn't going to be a possibility,” he said. “But you know, I was doing everything they asked me to do, meeting all their terms and their guidelines and all that stuff.”
Jones said that he knew something was wrong, but being a firefighter was at the core of who he was and he wasn’t ready to give that up and put his family’s financial future in jeopardy.
For a time, he even considered pretending to be better if it meant he could return to work and provide for his family.
“I was like, ‘Look, I'll just tell them I'm better. If I can't find something else, I'm going to lose everything I have,’” he said. “I had pretty much talked myself into going back to work, crazy or not.”
For Wesselink, that expectation to return is exactly what different departments and agencies should be rooting for. Over her career, Wesselink said she has seen many people overcome post-traumatic stress and be better for it.
“The retention is critical,” Wesselink said. “I want these guys to get their bounce back, their resiliency, their normalcy. Most people do really well, even though they’ve been through some very difficult experiences and events, if they have time to heal, if they understand that this is a normal process that they are going through. They are better for it, stronger for it.”
In the end, Jones couldn’t make himself go through his plan to return to work. The memories of his last days on the job were too fresh. Even small interactions with people disturbed him.
After Jones’ 12 weeks of FMLA ended in February of 2013, he was placed on a medical leave of absence and told he would need to check in with the county every three months as well as provide documentation from a doctor to prove that he was still in treatment and not able to return to work.
Sharon Jones said her son’s medical leave got off to a rocky start. She said Matthew Jones and his family were allegedly told conflicting information about what insurance coverage he would have, what he had paid for and what he was eligible for with his PTSD diagnosis.
She said that they were repeatedly told by the county that he would need to get workers’ compensation for his PTSD, but Sharon Jones said each time they applied they were denied and told that Georgia does not recognize PTSD for a workers’ compensation claim.
Later, she said the same thing happened when they attempted to trigger Matthew’s long-term disability benefits from the county’s health care provider.
“I mean, they should have known that PTSD wasn’t covered, but they continued to tell me to go there,” Matthew Jones said. “Nobody wanted to take responsibility for it, and all I wanted was some help.
“They did anything and everything to push it off on somebody else.”
Eventually, Jones was able to get his long-term disability coverage, but when reflecting on the hoops he had to jump through, including standing in front of a judge in Gainesville to get answers about his workers’ compensation claim, Matthew Jones laughed at the idea of someone trying to go through what he did without help.
“There should be a worksheet or something for this,” Jones said. “You know, ‘Sorry this happened to you. I need you to do this. This is step one. This is step two. This is step three, and stay in this order make sure that you get all this done.’ That didn’t happen for me.”
Matthew Jones said that during this time, if he hadn’t had his mother and other family members to help him, he likely wouldn’t have made it.
“Without her I would have died,” Jones said.
On May 17, 2013, Jones was notified by letter from Forsyth County Human Resources that his request to extend his medical leave had not been filed on time and had been terminated due to non-compliance to MLA timelines.
Jones quickly discovered that his psychiatrist’s office had failed to send the paperwork correctly. And even though his doctor sent a letter to the county explaining the situation, there was no appeal process.
“We did everything they asked of us – everything – and it didn’t make any difference,” he said.
“I couldn’t show them my brain”
In an email to the FCN, Forsyth County Attorney Ken Jarrard declined to comment on the minutia of county and fire department policy in regards to PTSD.
Jarrard cited current pending litigation that has been filed against the county, also involving a former Forsyth County firefighter and friend of Jones, Timothy Smallwood, who was allegedly terminated from the department after receiving a PTSD diagnosis.
According to a complaint filed earlier this year, in March of 2017, Smallwood, a 15-year veteran of the Forsyth County Fire Department, was requested by his doctor to take a leave of absence from work for “in-depth” treatment for PTSD.
The complaint states that after Smallwood applied for and was granted County Medical Leave, his employment was terminated by the county and his application to return to service was denied, stating within the denial that, “Fire Apparatus Operator is one of the most safety sensitive positions within the fire department.”
Smallwood’s attorney, J. Daniel Cole, told the FCN that by denying his request to return from service in such a manner, the county may have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Like Smallwood, Jones said that he fully expected that the department would welcome him back with open arms if his doctor cleared him to return. But according to copies of his correspondence with Forsyth County Human Resources Director Pat Carson, by being approved for a medical leave of absence, Jones agreed to be designated as involuntarily terminated.
Rather than comment on county policy regarding PTSD, Forsyth County Communications Director Karen Shields made a statement on the county’s behalf for the purposes of this story.
“Forsyth County understands that PTSD is a serious health issue and that all county employees may be susceptible after experiencing stressful events,” Shields said in her email. “The county places the health and well-being of its employees as priority one.”
Shields stated that employees like Jones have access to a comprehensive benefit package that includes an Employee Assistance Program which provides “confidential professional assistance for any type of personal or work-related problem including emotional or family distress, alcoholism, drug abuse, financial difficulties or legal problems.”
But according to Jones, knowing that the county has those programs is one thing. Being in the right state of mind to use them effectively is another.
To this day, Jones feels he didn’t receive the proper guidance, that he was abandoned by the place that he dedicated his life to. Jones believes that he was treated differently than other first responders who have been injured physically in the line of duty because the county didn’t understand what PTSD was at that time.
“I couldn’t show them my brain,” Jones said. “If someone lost their sight or a limb, you can see it, and I’m sure they would take different steps.”
Jones and his mom spent the better part of the next three years trying to get Matthew back in a fire station where he felt he belonged.
Sharon Jones said she has boxes filled to the brim with heartbreaking pleas for help, to everyone, anyone. She said that hopefully someday Matthew’s kids, Brady and Jake, will be able to look through the boxes of letters and understand what their dad went through.
“I have this box for his kids when I’m dead,” she said. “So they can see how he suffered and got through it.”