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'I didn't recognize it': When PTSD is ignored

Jo Terry had no idea what burdens her husband carried during his 26 years with the Covington Fire Department. In 2017, he took his own life.

First responders - those who dedicate their lives to helping others - aren’t getting the help they need. There’s a stigma, a fear surrounding mental health. Because of it, people are dying.

This week, We are dedicating a team of journalists to investigate the effects of Post Traumatic Stress on first responders. Part 3 of our series, Stressed into Silence, takes us to Covington, Ky.

COVINGTON, Ky. (WHAS11) -- It's a chapter of Jo Terry's life she tries to keep closed, but the memories of her late husband, Chip, carry open wounds.

"I try to hide it," Terry said.

She had no idea the burdens he carried during his 26 years with the Covington Fire Department, working his way up to assistant chief.

"I just assumed he was dealing with it," Terry said.

Chip retired in 2012. In his speech, he revealed the demons he'd been living with for years.

"What people don't see at 3 o'clock in the morning is when ... a young lieutenant has to put two toddlers and their grandmother in a body bag. I've been personally involved in 12 fire fatalities, not to mention the thousands and thousands of runs I've made. A 16-year-old boy hangs himself with an electrical cord. How do you close your eyes at night after you make that call? I've seen people shoot themselves in the head. I've seen children beaten and burned," Chip said.

It was a chilling tale of what life is like as a first responder and yet Terry admits, most who heard Chip's speech believed it was just part of the job.

"Even then, in 2012, we weren't talking about Post-Traumatic Stress in first responders. We weren't. I didn't hear about it until 2017," Terry said.

RELATED: 'This is the story about my worst run'; Firefighter battling PTSD breaks his silence

That's the year Chip checked himself into a Cincinnati hospital for suicidal thoughts.

"At that point, we recognized we had a problem," Terry said.

Chip spent a few weeks in counseling and was given a business card of someone who specialized in PTSD. A week later, he was dead.

"Committed suicide," Terry said.

Terry says he'd bought a gun in secret, using a credit card they never used.

"I said, 'I'm going to bed.' He said, 'Don't wait up for me.'"

The next morning, Terry heard a knock at the front door.

"I saw three men in suits and I knew," she said. "I just said, 'tell me he's okay' ... and they couldn't."

"How did I not help him? The pain that must be inside of them to want to give up. Their kids and their family and their future. I can't imagine how pained he was and to think I've been his partner for 31 years and I didn't recognize it. I didn't see it," Terry said.

The truth - is no one did.

"It's rocked all of us pretty hard," Covington's Battalion Chief John Martin said.

Mental illness didn't come up in conversation before Chip's death. But it does now.

"You can see the culture's already changing," Martin said. "Now, we're much more apt to talk about our feelings. We have a bad run - we're out on the floor."

Terry has since joined the fire department's behavioral health team and speaks at events hoping Chip's story will change the course for other first responders who need help but don't know where to find it.

"Alcoholism, infidelity, divorce...it's huge in this population of people. Why? It's because they're trying to cope with mechanisms that aren't the answer," she said.

"The reason we're doing this is to bring it to the forefront. And yes, it happens all the time. Look at the statistics, they're ridiculous," Martin said.

RELATED: Stressed into silence: When the worst calls hit home for first responders

Last year, more firefighters, EMTs and police officers died by suicide than in the line of duty. You didn’t hear about it because departments don't release details, and less than 5 percent have suicide-prevention programs.

"In [Chip's] note, his final sentence was 'mental illness is no different than cancer. In the end, both can be terminal.' We owe it to these first responders to get them the mental health they need and the only way I know how to do that is through awareness," Terry said.

UPDATE: A bill that would establish a peer support group for firefighters is in the hands of Kentucky lawmakers. The program would be named after Chip Terry. You can learn more about the bill here.

►Contact reporter Brooke Hasch at bhasch@whas11.com. Follow her on Twitter (@WHAS11Hasch) and Facebook.

Click here to learn more about PTSD.

Click here to learn the symptoms of PTSD.

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