“It was just absolute chaos. For all of us on the FDNY.” Retired New York firefighter Chris Walsh recalls what he felt on Sept. 11, 2001. “We lost 343 firefighters that day and we all wanted to go do something to help.”
Walsh is just one of the many firefighters who was working on 9/11. The events of that day have stayed with him for 20 years. And he tells NBC he never knows when something will trigger those painful memories.
“Whenever I drive by a construction site, where there’s concrete dust, there’s a smell that comes out,” Walsh said. “There’s certain smells, sounds that affect me.”
“Florian’s Knights” is a new documentary that takes a closer look at what happens to the firefighters who run towards danger everyday, then go home and try to live a normal life. Filmmaker Panayioti Yannitsos gives viewers an intimate look at the harsh realities firefighters encounter from the impact of 9/11, to the front lines of the opioid crisis.
“For over a century, firefighters in North America have grappled with the harsh reality of post-traumatic stress. In pursuit of making this movie, we were faced with a code of silence engrained in fire departments for generations. I knew that this moratorium on mental health was costing men and women their lives, whether through substance abuse, depression, or suicide,” Yannitsos tells NBC.
In April 2018, Yannitsos found out about the Florian’s Knights motorcycle club, named after St. Florian the patron saint of firefighters. And over the course of three years, Yannitsos and a core team of only four fellow filmmakers slept in fire halls across North America, often in 24-hour shifts, responding to emergencies in real time to get a closer look at what firefighters deal with on a daily basis.
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“We have to figure out solutions to help people because we’re seeing suicides go up. We’re seeing a mental health crisis especially in first responders,” UCLA neuroscientist Dr. Don Vaughn tells NBC.
Dr. Vaughn and his team measured the brain activity, heart rate, and hormone levels of over 50 experienced motorcycle riders as part of “Project Free.” The study was peer reviewed and accepted by the Brain Research journal. The study concluded that riding a motorcycle can decrease hormonal biomarkers of stress. The work was funded by a grant from Harley-Davidson.
Wind therapy as its come to be known, is a colloquial term in motorcycling for the calming effects of a motorcycle ride. Dr. Vaughn explains that wind therapy has been proven to have an impact on lowering stress, improving focus and changing brain patterns.
“We actually scanned the brains of motorcyclists while they were riding and we found not only is there a reduction in a chemical called cortisol, which is related to stress,” Dr. Vaughn said. “We also saw brain patterns that are more like meditation. So it appears to me that riding a motorcycle has a clear impact on our physiology and our mental health.”
Dr. Vaughn also said the biggest impediment to getting firefighters the help they need is stigma.
“Feeling like you’re a broken person and there’s something wrong with you is one of the biggest impediments to people going out there and actually seeking the help they need,” Dr. Vaughn said.
Yannitsos and all of the firefighters in the film hope by speaking up about their struggles, they can encourage other firefighters to ask for help, or at least go for a ride.
“Florian’s Knights” will be released in select theaters across the U.S. on Sept. 10 and on Blu-Ray/DVD and digital platforms Nov. 23.