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"It's better to prevent than to cure" - Staffordshire Fire's Tom Casey talks about his battle with PTSD

February 7 2020
Watch Manager Tom Casey

Watch Manager Tom Casey

Tom Casey is a Watch Manager at Leek Fire Station. Since joining the service in 1991 he’s served across most wholetime and retained stations – including Hanley, Longton, Newcastle and Leek. As part of “Time to Talk Day” he’s decided to share his story about his experiences with PTSD and how he’s overcome his struggles after years of hard work.

You shouldn’t be embarrassed by having these feelings – that’s one of the worst things you can think. You need to know you’re not letting anyone down. Do yourself a favour and get the right help.

Watch Manager Tom Casey

What were the highlights of your career within the fire service?

Anybody who’s working within Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service is proud to be here. My pride is when we’ve been out and rescued people from properties – when I was younger we rescued a group of students from a terraced house in Hanley. The teamwork that goes on is really something to be proud of. It’s an amazing job as you change other people’s lives. Overall it’s been a fantastic career, I’ve loved every minute of it apart from the last three years, which I’ve been suffering somewhat.

What’s happened over the last three years?

The tendency with the fire service – whether you’re younger and just starting or coming towards the end of your career – is to put things on the backburner. We all understand that we can ask for assistance and ask for help but it’s rare that we do. Quite often some of the incidents we go to are so traumatic that we don’t want to talk to our partners and friends about them so we put it in a box, on a shelf, in our mind and we try not to worry about it so much. You think it’s alright and that you’ll deal with it later but you don’t - I’ve been guilty of that for 27 years.

I always thought you could hide it away in a dark part of your mind and everything will be alright until something just pops you over that edge – something that pushes you to a point where all those things fall off the shelves because you can’t deal with so many issues at once.

For me things started to unravel and these boxes in mind started opening up. I was remembering things that have happened in the past and I starting thinking about things I could have done better or whether I could have saved someone’s life. The stress comes because you know it’s too late to do anything about it but you can’t stop yourself thinking about it. I started connecting current jobs to old jobs and things start to build up and you struggle to sleep and it hits you like a ton of bricks. You keep asking yourself “what did I do wrong there?”

What impact did that have on your life?

It affects every area of your life. I tried to be professional and did my best not to let anyone down by putting my game face on. I tried to get on with it as I didn’t want to lumber anyone at home or at work with what I’d been through. This isn’t healthy and things start becoming difficult - you become tired and become ratty with people at home, you haven’t had any sleep and you’re aware of everything that goes on.

My wife couldn’t understand what had happened as I’d shut myself in a room and just stared at a wall - trying to figure out what’s going on but that’s when you really need to seek professional help. It’s almost impossible to process all of this information yourself.

When I went off I couldn’t even look at my uniform – I had to keep them in a separate cupboard. When I was out in the car and saw a fire engine I would always turn the other way. One day, I walked into a supermarket and saw an old friend from my younger days at the fire station working as a security guard. I just turned around and walked straight out as I couldn’t face talking to anyone associated with the fire service – even someone who I had worked with for 12 years. It hit my like a ton of bricks – it was shocking.

How did you go about getting the help you needed and what process did you go through?

I phoned Occupational Health and they were fantastic. They pointed me in the right direction and organised a psychologist – which was in itself a massive trauma. The thought of talking to someone else about my personal views of incidents – RTCs in particular – was horrendous.

However, I knew I needed to do it and knew I needed to get the best support so I sat down with him and we discussed at length how I was feeling, why I wasn’t sleeping, why I kept revisiting old incidents, why the boxes in my mind started falling off their shelves and after a few months we worked out where we were.

Over 18 months I went every week to see the psychologist (seeing Occupational Health every month) and we worked through a myriad of incidents. This work made me realise that it wasn’t my fault that incidents happened, it wasn’t my fault that somebody died and that we always did everything we could have done.

It was very, very hard work but I realised it was helping – and that made it easier.

How did things improve and what advice would you give to someone going through the same thing?

You’ve got to be tenacious because the first few times you go will be hard and you’ll naturally seem like a complete failure. I didn’t feel any better and I thought it didn’t suit me at first but it’s vital you recognise that. It was extremely tough to do and you want to give up but sometimes you can’t get everything out so you’ve got to have that desire to get better. If you don’t want to get better then you won’t get better.

I couldn’t believe how ill I got but I’m now in a far better place. This is partly because I always kept PTSD in mind:

  • Process, recognise the symptoms in ourselves and colleagues
  • Time, recognise it won’t be solved overnight
  • Support, seek help and assistance
  • Desire, be dedicated to healing yourself

How important is it that emergency service staff talk and share?

It’s essential you catch any negative thoughts early. Prevention is always better than cure – we all know that. None of us want to look weak or show any chink in the armour but we are all just human beings – these things can happen to us. Prevent it happening by sharing those issues, going to the right people and getting the right assistance early doors.

There’s going to be hundreds of people across the emergency services in Staffordshire that are all going to have traumas that are already set and pushed to the back of their minds. You might feel fine today and you might feel fine tomorrow but at some point that trauma will rear its head and I was more shocked than anyone when it happened to me.

You’ve got to recognise the signs and symptoms such as hypervigilance and physical reactions like being tense in shoulders and your upper body, I had to have sports massages to release that tension. You might be struggling to sleep or even concentrate, I couldn’t read a book or a newspaper or watch a TV programme, I was irritable and had outbursts and it’s recognising that behaviour and the causes of that.

You shouldn’t be embarrassed by having these feelings – that’s one of the worst things you can think. You need to know you’re not letting anyone down. Do yourself a favour and get the right help.

There are a number of helplines for anyone struggling, to find out more, visit the NHS help page.
For more information on Time To Talk day, visit the Time to Change website.