After working in the fire and rescue service, John Durkin placed the real world challenges of incident stress, colleagues’ suicides, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder under academic scrutiny, to design an evidence based programme of crisis intervention for the emergency services.
John assisted the post 9/11 peer response with New York police officers, and led the Metropolitan Police Service’s crisis response to the 2017 London terror attacks and Grenfell Tower fire.
He has become a leader of a movement that places experience above qualifications, and skill above expertise—a bottom up approach to mental health and well-being.
“When you’ve survived something that could’ve taken your life, you’ve kind of earned your stripes…I returned to work bigger better and stronger, but found myself worried to death about a job I used to be confident in.”
When John was 19 he had what he calls “naïve ambitions” to become a doctor. Back then jobs were dropping off trees and John had to decide between being a banker or joining the fire brigade, and he turned down the suit job and joined the brigade. His uncle had been killed in a factory collapse as a sub officer, so even going in fresh, John had an idea of what could await him, his colleagues, and citizens.
John was seriously injured after 12 years on the job after falling out of an attic in a shop that was on fire. After a recovery period, he returned to work with a strong fear of dying in an environment that was macho and hostile to such emotions. He felt he was betraying his peers for being what they perceived as weak.
“That was the point at which I was beginning to realize how suddenly you can go from something made of leather to something made of wet tissue paper.”
His own experiences started to shed light on what his colleagues were feeling, sadly, after the fact for some of them who ended up committing suicide. The reasons and scenarios behind each instance of suicide were distant, with one firefighter not even having been to the fire that was thought to have caused him distress. This hinted though at a common theme, that a sense of betrayal was prevalent in all these instances.
After a horrific accident on the M5 and how his team and superiors handled the after effects, John began down a path of study and research into a term that didn’t exist when he first entered the service —PTSD. John went on to learn from officers and departments in the United States after 9/11, earned his Masters and PhD, and has given over everything to implement debriefing practices after calls in order to help responders work through trauma—and his results have been astounding, even though he has still received backlash and push back from higher ups and even the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.
“Somebody pointed out to me that the worst pain anyone can endure is the one you’re feeling right now.”
It is a tremendous story that shows John’s struggles as well as all those who serve to protect citizens around the world. While some parts of the story seem unbearably heavy and hopeless, John wants me to tell you it’s not all bad, and if he has his way, things will continue on a path that protects and helps responders better understand and work through some of our cities greatest tragedies.