Matt Shobert opens his eyes and wishes he was dead, a recurrent thought that started four years ago when the former firefighter first contemplated taking his own life.
He is not the only one: some of his comrades suffer in silence, and some end up committing suicide.
Fighting forest fires such as those that have ravaged the western regions of the United States this summer means days that are both exhausting and interminable, while the death and destruction weigh heavily on the minds of those tasked with stemming the flames.
“You’ve got firefighters working 12 to 36 hours straight on the fire line, so they are physically exhausted, they are emotionally exhausted because firemen have been dying,” said fire chief Tony Bommarito in Yorba Linda, 65 kilometers south of Los Angeles.
California, one of the worst-hit states, has seen five firefighters die battling the flames so far this year. Across the whole country, that number rises to 64, according to official figures.
That figure does not include the 45 who killed themselves in 2018, according to Jeff Dill, whose Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance group helps those battling depression or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, otherwise known as PTSD.
“We are expected to act brave, strong, courageous to help, don’t ask for help,” said Dill, a retired firefighter whom Shobert called when his thoughts turned to leaping off a bridge in San Diego.
Dill has tallied 1,200 suicides over the past 20 years, including 93 in 2017, but he thinks that only represents around 40 percent of the actual number of suicides, because his research depends on families and friends coming forward with the information for his list.
Experts say that the decision to commit suicide is often the result of an accumulation of factors.
That is what happened with Mike Bilek. It was his past in the military, then as a firefighter, all mixed in with unspecified personal issues, that led him to think about killing himself.
“At one point, I was getting into such a dark place that I started having those thoughts of suicide. I never got to the point where I was going to act out on it,” he said. “But the fact that those thoughts were even creeping into my head really scared the daylights out of me.”
Bilek sought help and now treats his condition with a combination of therapy, medication and meditation.
There is more talk these days in fire stations about mental health issues, with support groups, but there is still resistance.
Dill said he recently talked with seven firefighters diagnosed with PTSD who were “fired from the job because they were told, ‘Well you can’t do the job no more,’” he said.