“I got to about 35, 40 fatalities before I started seeing the cracks in the concrete,” says Ross Beckley.
The Central Coast local is describing his 20 year career with Fire and Rescue NSW, where he routinely responded to house fires, high speed car crashes and other fatal accidents.
Those ‘cracks’ took the form of suicidal thoughts and ideation, flashbacks and sudden rage, and by the end of the 2000s, Ross says his relationship with partner Veronique was left “hanging on by a string”.
A diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) eventually followed, and Ross was medically discharged from the fire brigade in 2014.
“It took me two years before I took ownership of my situation. A lot of it is to do with the name – post traumatic stress disorder. It makes you feel like you’re broken. I prefer the word ‘injury’, because that’s what it is.”
The biggest step in his recovery has been understanding his own triggers, which Ross did in collaboration with a psychologist who specialised in PTSD.
“Once you understand them, it makes it a lot easier,” Ross explains. “I don’t like the sounds of cars speeding or screeching, movies with graphic content, helicopters at 3am or high traffic roads.”
Instrumental too has been his work to educate other emergency workers and their families - who Ross describes as “the first responders to our first responders” - about the importance of their mental health. Ross and Veronique founded the organisation Behind the Seen in 2013 and run informal education sessions for staff and volunteers at emergency services such as NSW Rural Fire Service and the NSW Volunteer Rescue Association.
“At times it can be difficult to openly share my personal journey, but talking openly about mental health is what I encourage others to do, so I want to set an example,” Ross says of his presentations.
“It’s like going to an AA meeting and talking about your experience. It’s an integral part of recovery.”
His lived experience gives him credibility with session attendees, Ross explains, and he takes care not to trigger himself or others when presenting. The emphasis is on recognition of early warning signs of poor mental health and simple strategies to build resilience.
“It’s about reaching out,” Ross summarises. “It’s ok to have organisational supports, but you’ve got to put your hand up for help. I make the analogy that it’s like being at the beach and drowning – the lifesavers don’t know you’re in trouble till you put your hand up.”
Ross and Veronique won the 2015 TheMHS mental health prevention/promotion award and researchers from the Black Dog Institute are currently evaluating the efficacy of Behind the Seen’s programs.
“I don’t need to wear a badge to save people now,” Ross says of his work. But he doesn’t want to do it forever.
“I’d like to think that one day, there’ll be no need for Behind the Seen to exist.”