Del Mar retired firefighter aims to help first responders through meditation

After long shifts of firefighting, John Vargo often found it difficult to transition from life at the station to family time at home.

"From the time I left the station to the time I got home, I was angry," the 20-year firefighter recalled. "If I would come home and there were dishes in the sink, that would upset me because we just left the station clean. ... To be able to turn that light switch on and off was brutally hard. It got to be too much. I actually went into work in May [2017], and I was just done."

John Vargo
John Vargo Courtesy

The Del Mar resident was not alone. The University of Phoenix found in May 2017 that 85 percent of surveyed first responders had experienced symptoms related to mental health issues. Additionally, one-third of those responders were formally diagnosed with depression or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Half of them had received pre-exposure training, while another half received follow-up care after a traumatic event.

Firefighters can see more trauma in one shift than an average person can see in his or her lifetime, Vargo noted. Last year, more firefighters died of suicide than while serving on the line of duty, he noted.

Additionally, he said many firefighters, police officers and other public safety officials are afraid to talk about their mental health status because they believe it might affect their careers.

Vargo, who retired from an Arizona fire department in July 2017, found solace that year in something he had never considered — meditation.

"There was just nothing that could make me whole again," he said. "My wife said that I needed to figure this out."

He and his wife went on a retreat to the Chopra Center in Carlsbad, where the couple indulged in meditation methods, and Vargo was finally able to experience a clearer mind for the first time in years.

Dr. Michelle Kole, a licensed psychologist, said meditation can be beneficial in traumatic situations.

"My patients who meditated and my patients who were medicated were having the same experience," she said in a video provided by Vargo. "Basically, what that was, is they had more space between their thoughts and their reactions. They were having some quieting of their mind, which was the goal."

Now, Vargo is aiming to help other public safety officials discover meditation to improve their mental health. He launched a nonprofit called Turn In last year, where he offers meditation retreats to first responders free of charge at the Chopra Center in Carlsbad.

Turn In held its first retreat with six attendees in August.

Turn In
Turn In participants at a retreat in August Courtesy

Vargo noted some reluctance at first from the participants but noted they said they felt better by the end of the retreat.

One retired fire chief who attended at the recommendation of his wife left telling Vargo he had a "new path to go down" for the first time since retiring.

Kyle, an Arizona firefighter and military veteran who did not disclose his last name, attended the August retreat and found "unlimited options" in regard to resources, experts and tools to deal with stressors.

"My big takeaway was just the sense of gratitude I had when I left," he said in a video testimonial for Turn In. "[I learned] how to live a happy life and how to sustain that."

Vargo said he believes the methods taught at Turn In are so beneficial to first responders that they should be taught in fire, police and military academies.

But there's still a stigma attached to meditation and more work needs to be done, Vargo noted.

"A lot of guys are afraid to talk because it might affect their career or get back to the chief," he said. "Confidentiality is a big part of this. We just need to get over the stigma that it's not OK to see what we've seen and not make it right."

He said people interested in helping Turn In pursue its mission further and reach more public safety officials can visit to donate. One hundred percent of donations to Turn In goes toward the nonprofit, Vargo said. Those interested in attending a future retreat can visit the website to learn more.

Vargo said he hopes to "heal some of the wounds" for other first responders and help them find benefits in meditation.

"It's a tool I have," he said of the mental exercise. "It hasn't made me great or perfect by any means, but it's made me happier, calmer and not so reactive to things. ... It widens the space between your thoughts."