Former firefighter helping others in his field fight suicidal thoughts through the power of outdoors

A former firefighter who once battled his own suicidal thoughts is now on a mission to help others just like him through the power of the outdoors.  For several months, Zach Maddox considered taking his own life. 

"I kind of knew how I was going to do it. I just didn't set a date," he said. "It gets to the point where you fight so hard for so long that you get tired of fighting."

He was a firefighter for about seven years. He spent five and a half years working at Marion County Fire Rescue.  The job was great at first. 

"The job itself was … 100 miles an hour, and I loved every second of it," Maddox said.

Then, the stresses and trauma of the job, the constant lack of sleep and long hours, and the low pay started catching up to him in the worst imaginable way.

"There's so many things that go into it that add all together into one ticking time bomb," he said.

Maddox was able to escape that darkness, but some of his former colleagues weren't so fortunate. This year alone, he's lost two of them, a total of five in just four years. 

"That's when it really hurts is, you know, if I would have known, maybe I could have done something, or if I could have seen certain signs, maybe I could have helped him a little bit more," he said.

According to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, at least 23 firefighters have died by suicide nationwide so far this year.  It's still one too many, but the data does appear to show an improvement. Last year, the alliance reported a total of 80 died by suicide, down from 91 in 2021, 102 in 2020, and a high of 126 in 2019.

Now almost a year on a path to a new career, in his time off, Maddox is helping others who've been in his shoes by offering a listening ear.

"It's a stress-free day on the water. A stress-free day out [in] the woods. It's a way of finding some peace," he said.

As part of Healing Heroes Guide Co., Maddox takes first responders, both current and former, who need someone to vent to out on the water. He calls it recreational therapy. 

"If you can make a difference in one life, that's what ... there's no other form of payment that you could get," Maddox said.

While their time outdoors may only be a temporary distraction, he hopes fire departments around the nation find better ways to improve the lives of their employees through better pay and better resources to help them process what they go through. 

"As soon as it doesn't become fun, it's a miserable job. But the more fun that you have, the better your mind is. It's the best job in the world," Maddox said.

If you're a first responder yourself and would like to get outdoors with Maddox, you can reach him on Instagram.  If you're having suicidal thoughts and need someone to talk to right now, you can either call or text the Suicide and Crisis Hotline at 988.