MOST people know Travis Harris as the friendly, happy-go-lucky Rochester guy.
He is always there for his friends and family — and his community. He spends his Christmas Day making sure others don’t feel lonely, hosting a traditional lunch with his family so everyone has someone to be with. And he fights fires whenever needed, protecting those throughout central Victoria, as a career firefighter with Bendigo CFA.
But this generous pillar of Rochester society has been hiding a dark past. One riddled with guilt — for not being somewhere quick enough, for not saving everyone, for not confronting his demons.
It’s a story he revealed to Fairfax journalist Julia May and the Campaspe News with the hope more people would realise there is help.
‘‘Plenty of it,’’ he said. ‘‘And it’s okay to ask for it. ‘‘Up until recently I was the same as a lot of people, I put on the brave face and didn’t talk.
‘‘But it doesn’t work.’’
Having been part of the CFA for more than 16 years — 10 as a professional — Travis has certainly seen more trauma than most.
And then there comes a point when being part of this trauma takes its toll on the mind and body — and there’s no group that feels that as much as our emergency service workers.
The tipping point could come from anywhere.
The woman who has set fire to herself and asks the firefighter who is first to the scene, ‘‘Am I still pretty?’’
It could be cleaning blood and tissue off a train. Or trying to resuscitate a man, whose wife is dead beside him, and then having him die in your arms.
But for Travis it was having to flee a fire on Black Saturday, only to discover later that someone had died just metres away.
‘‘What would have happened if we had have been 10 seconds earlier or pushed ourselves a bit harder to get in there?
‘‘I felt so bad that somebody lost their life and I was so close.’’
That experience in 2009, which followed a run of attending fatalities, triggered post-traumatic stress disorder, marital problems and finally, last October, the decision to take his own life.
Fortunately his wife Bronwyn intervened.
Her action saved his life.
‘‘She grabbed me and wouldn't let me leave. I cried all night; she held me all night,’’ he said.
The love of his life and mother to his two daughters, Elizabeth and Charlotte, Bronwyn is one for bringing out the best in Travis.
She introduced him to the concept of sharing Christmas 15 years ago, it was something she had grown up doing, and in 2004 they brought it to Rochester, together.
‘‘She’s truly unbelievable,’’ Travis said.
And in October last year, she was literally a life saver.
A visit to the GP set her husband towards recovery, and after four months of intensive counselling he feels like a changed man, though still has ups and downs.
‘‘It was a big step but as soon as you take that first step it’s a big relief; you know there's people caring about you. ‘‘It was the weight off my shoulders, asking for help.’’
Travis paid a big price to live out his childhood dream of becoming a firefighter.
Moving to Rochester at 11, he finished school, went into the building industry but left it all to fight fires. ‘‘It’s what I always wanted to do,’’ he said.
He didn’t anticipate the mental trauma he would be confronted with, let alone deaths — at their own hands — of his brothers in arms.
Tragically Travis’ experience is becoming more, rather than less, common in emergency services: the Victorian fire service is experiencing a mental health crisis, with a dramatic spike in the number of firefighters taking their own lives.
Between 2000 and 2012, five firefighters suicided. In the past 14 months, four Metropolitan Fire Brigade officers have died by their own hand: two men from the same station died within a day of each other.
On an annualised basis these deaths represent an 800 per cent increase. (The CFA does not record members’ suicides so the increase is possibly higher.) Similarly the rate is rising in Victoria Police: last week alone two officers took their own lives and there have been eight suicides in the past three years, an annualised increase of 450 per cent.
Suicide rates for paramedics, too, have been consistently on the rise. It’s not only frontline responders who suffer: last week the Minister for Police and Corrections, Wade Noonan, announced he was taking leave to seek help for dealing with ‘‘unspeakable crimes and traumatic events’’ in his role. He has been applauded for seeking help.
Travis said the perceived need to appear brave could dissuade people from admitting they were struggling. ‘‘In the fire brigade you are expected to be a tough person, which is silly.
I'm trying to get it out there that this a very normal thing and there’s lots of people in the same boat.
It’s OK to ask for help and put your hand up and say I'm not OK. What we have to process is not normal.
‘‘It’s okay if you’re not coping, we just need to look out for each other and ask the question — how are you?’’
The psychologist who treated Travis, Bendigo-based Diane Williams, said given the number of incidents emergency services workers attend, and their unexpected nature, being traumatised was ‘‘not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of what they've been exposed to’’.
The tipping point can vary, from something innocuous to something more disturbing that might resonate with the person’s own life.
Travis said the teamwork inherent in emergency services created opportunities to save lives – by having the difficult conversations.
‘‘We tell each other we're a team, we stick together but sometimes don't feel comfortable telling them what's wrong.
That's what I'm trying to fix – we need to change that culture.’’
He said since his story had its first release on the weekend, the response had been ‘‘overwhelming’’.
‘‘It’s just awesome — the reaction from family, friends, colleagues and people I don’t even know,’’ he said.
‘‘People are out there, support networks in place, you’ve just got to ask.’
For help or information call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251 or Lifeline on 131 114, or visit beyondblue.org.au
■ Julia May writes for The Age