‘He had no escape’: Widow of Winter Park firefighter pushing for mental health screenings for first responders

Video: ‘He had no escape’: Widow of Winter Park firefighter pushing for mental health screenings for first responders

WINTER PARK, Fla. — The widow of a Winter Park firefighter and EMS captain, who died of an overdose after hiding a secret addiction, is calling for more mental health screenings for first responders.

When 9 Investigates first aired a story about the man’s death a year ago, it was the first time his wife had heard anything about the years of stealing drugs, which would lead to his overdose. She told investigators at that time she believed he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and now she wants to see other first responders screened regularly for mental trauma.

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There are reminders all around the Audubon Park home of the life of service Isaacs lived.

“There was so much more to him than just the struggles he faced,” Heather Isaacs said of her late husband. “He did care for the people who worked with him and worked for him.”

An addiction enabled by access to narcotics as a Winter Park EMS captain led to A.J. Isaacs’ death last year. 9 Investigates uncovered he went unchecked as he manipulated the department’s inventory systems to obtain more than 700 vials of morphine, versed, valium and ketamine from 2016 to 2018.

VIDEO: Winter Park Fire Department employee overdoses on narcotics he had access to through his position

Just hours before his January 2019 overdose, while everyone else at Station 61 was gone to a call, A.J. Isaacs would use that same system to steal more drugs. His widow said she learned those details from our reporting.

“To find out there was a secret addiction was incredibly heartbreaking to me,” she said. “That just explained how much pain he was in and the lack of support there was, and signs I think all of us missed.”

She is referring not just to the drug use, but what she believes led to the abuse in the first place: PTSD brought on by a career of responding to tragedies.

“He had no escape, and he was he was an officer in the fire service, so he saw the worst of the worst calls,” Heather Isaacs said. “And you can only replace it with the next worse call.”

The National Institutes of Health confirms that firefighters are at elevated suicide risk because of the potential for PTSD. A 2017 Harris Poll found more than one-third of first responders surveyed reported being diagnosed with a mental health disorder, but many don’t seek help.

“We have to change the idea that somehow people should not be affected by the horrible things that happen to other people,” said Dr. Deborah Beidel, who runs the UCF Restores clinic, which focuses on treating PTSD.

The program was expanded to include treatment for first responders after the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016. In the four years since, more than 300 police, fire and dispatch workers have come in for help. Despite that, there are no state or national standards that require regular mental health screenings for those workers.

“There’s a cumulative effect, if we think about this. We have to remember our first responders. Their job is always responding to trauma. That’s their job. So they face lots of traumas on a daily basis,” Beidel said.

It’s something Heather Isaacs hopes will change, but she knows the challenge will be fighting budgets and stigma in a profession not used to asking for help.

“They do have physical fitness standards, so your mind and your heart is just as important as your physical characteristics, and I think we need to focus on that as well,” Heather Isaacs said.

She hopes a state lawmaker will help take up her cause to push for annual mental health screenings and monthly group therapy within departments.

At Winter Park fire, city leaders said employees have access to critical incident stress debriefings, employee assistance programs and UCF Restores. All department members are required to complete a medical evaluation annually during which members are required to answer some questions about their mental health, sleep patterns, and drug or alcohol consumption, similar to a wellness visit with your physician. In addition, all department members have completed a course on PTSD in the fire industry.

Channel 9 checked with other departments and found mental health evaluations vary from county to county.

Lake County Fire Rescue does not have a pre-employment mental health screening. An employee assistance program is available, as well as an on-staff chaplain and support groups are used as needed.

In Orlando, fire department members do undergo an evaluation before hire, and they have a partnership with UCF Restores but no annual mental health evaluations.

Seminole County offers an employee assistance program for all employees that can be initiated by an employee or supervisor, and employees within public safety are given an additional two free visits under the county’s EAP program. The county’s EAP provider has specific programs and treatment options for first responders and military personnel that include treatment for PTSD. However, Seminole does not have a psychological assessment during the hiring process.