Retired Firefighter Saves His Own Life and Others by Talking About Mental Health

Retired Calgary Fire Department District Chief opens up about his lifetime struggle with major depressive disorder and OCD.

On the outside, Mark Weatherly comes across as a happy-go-lucky individual. He’s excited to be heading to his cabin on Shuswap Lake in B.C. soon, as he does every summer

The 57-year-old, married father of two beautiful daughters retired two-and-a-half years ago as a District Chief for the Calgary Fire Department (CFD).

“What would you think of me right now?” he asks  at the outset of our interview, as we sat outside a Kensington Cafe sipping hot coffee. “I don’t seem depressed, do I?”

“No, you don’t,” I reply.

From first encounter, his contagious grin, friendly presence and clear passion for helping others does not lead someone to assume he’s been suffering from severe depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) the majority of his life.

“That’s a hard part about mental illness,” Weatherly replies. “I think, ‘How can I have all of this bounty and still be depressed?’”

Weatherly, an avid cyclist and health enthusiast, says he experienced symptoms of mental illness since his teenage years. He finally sought professional help at the age of 27, but was not diagnosed with depression until two years later in 1986 and then relational OCD in 1994.

“[Since then] I’ve take every anti-depressant medication on the market. I’ve taken every anti-obsessive medication. And I’ve [been through] 12 ECT scans (electroconvulsive therapy).”

This September 2014, Weatherly will be undergoing deep brain stimulation therapy with hopes to overcome his depression. The procedure is part of a pilot study though the Therapeutic Brain Stimulation program, a joint initiative by the University of Calgary, Hotchkiss Brain Institute and Calgary Health Region.

“I hope I feel better before [the procedure] because it scares the heck out of me,” he says.

This procedure, originally used for movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, does have risk of complications, according to a 2002 study published by the Movement Disorders Society. Despite these risks and his fears around them, Weatherly says the last three years of his life have been clouded over by a major depressive episode and the risks, at this point, are worth the opportunity for relief.

“Depression for me is overwhelming sadness that comes from nothing, especially in the mornings. I get up and think, ‘I don’t know if I can do this again today.’  It’s just there all the time,” he explains. “It would be very easy to sit on the couch everyday – I understand how people do that – but I wouldn’t let my daughters see me do that. I’m not going to let this beat me, and I want my kids to see that I can do this in a healthy way. And I want to help other people learn to deal with this – that’s a passion for me.”

As a long-time firefighter, helping people is something Weatherly has done professionally for 32 years of his life.

“I loved the adrenaline rush – that was the best part. I worked in the busiest fire station for many years, and I always loved going to calls. There was never a time of day that I didn’t want to go to a call.”

As enjoyable as his career always was, Weatherly says the fire hall was a difficult environment to show emotion, to talk about any personal struggle or to be an individual.

“In the fire hall, at the time, you couldn’t show any weakness, so I developed a pretty good persona. When I ended up in the hospital in 1988 for the first time, nobody could believe that I ended up going there.”

As first responders, firefighters are often first on scene of any medical-related calls. Their roles expand far beyond their title – firefighter – they witness and deal with many difficult situations and tragedies, such as car accidents, abuse and death by suicide.

“What we do at calls is unbelievable, but when we came back to the hall, we’d never talk about it…That’s the fire hall way. ‘Deal with it.’ But we weren’t dealing with it – we were just pushing it aside.”

“I coped with it pretty well – less so now than then. Yeah, I think it accumulated.” He adds, “I think I just learned to compartmentalize it.”

Although Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has been a recognized as a common mental health concern for first responders, Weatherly insists attending difficult emergency situations was not the reason he struggled with his mental illness. However, he agress that it certainly has it’s toll on many firefighters, paramedics and police.

In 2014, there was a total of 24 suicides by first responders in Canada within a span of six months.

Weatherly, who was adopted as a baby, says after finding his birth family in the ’90s, he learned he had a genetic connection to mental disorders. He says this helped him to understand his own struggle a little bit better.

After experiencing his first long-term hospitalization while in his 20s, Weatherly reached out to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) – Calgary  with hopes to start the conversation on mental health within the CFD. He soon went on to make presentations for members of the CFD for a short period of time. He also mades requests that the department create preventative mental health programming for its staff.  Weatherly explains his efforts did not bring about programming; however, it did generate a sense of peer support for other firefighters.

“I had lots and lots of firefighters who would come and talk to me about it,” Weatherly explains. “They’d come to me in the fire hall and say something like, ‘I understand you have struggles with depression. Well I do, too.’…Most of the [fire] stations really accepted me, but some of the guys would walk out and say something like, ‘This is so stupid. This is crazy stuff.’ But I’d say it was usually the guys I knew that were suffering that would walk out.”

Today, the retired firefighter continues to raise awareness about mental illness through the CMHA – Calgary’s Youth Education program and through initiatives such as CMHA’s Ride Don’t Hide in Calgary. Weatherly recently road his bike from Salmon Arm to Revelstoke in support of the Ride Away Stigmacampaign.

When Weatherly reflects on his own struggle, he wishes there had been more support available to him throughout his career, but his outlook on how his illness affected his life remains positive.

“It made me a better firefighter. It was hard living with it as a firefighter having to hide it all the time, but I think if you had seen me interact with patients at medical calls, I was very good at that. I was good at interacting with people with problems. I understood.”

“My ability to help others is something that keeps me going. I’m pretty good at it. Despite it all, I like who I am. There are days I get mad at myself – I hate these obsessive thoughts – but I like who I am because of it. I’m a pretty compassionate person… I’m more than the illness; the illness isn’t me. It’s there 100 per cent of the time, but I’m not it. I think that’s what helps me get up I the morning: You can’t let your illness define who you are.”

Weatherly currently works as a personal trainer and teaches cardio classes at a local athletic facility. He is also working towards launching a peer support program for local firefighters that will operate separate from the CFD. The program is still in its development stages.

In the meantime, Weatherly continues to hope for an ever-increasing cultural shift within the fire department, both locally and across Canada, where firefighters – women and men who are tasked to help during some of our most difficult and desperate experiences every day – aren’t afraid or ashamed to ask for help.