By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer
Over the past several years, me and my guest bloggers have written a number of articles for this site, as well as FireRescue1.com and EMS1.com, about firefighter mental health and suicide. Both of those issues are posing a serious threat to firefighters, their departments, and the communities that they serve. The following is a compilation of those articles.
Here you’ll also find links to programs that exist to serve the needs of firefighters and EMS personnel who are struggling with the effects of post-traumatic stress.
Alcohol and Substance Abuse
Successful substance abuse treatment requires evidence-based practices, individualized care and program components tailored to unique needs of EMTs and paramedics.
But we cannot ignore that firefighters in our midst are hurting today and hurting for a variety of reasons. We must stop thinking that firefighters who are hurting—from PTSD, substance abuse, domestic violence (at home and in the workplace)—will come to work with a sign on their forehead that reads, “I Need Help!”
Protecting Firefighter Mental Health
Firefighter safety is also about protecting the mind from the barrage of witnessed trauma.
Firefighter safety is as much about their mental state as their physical state; here’s what the company officer can do to boost the crew’s emotional hygiene.
Following hazmat scene basic protocols when dealing with an emotionally difficult scene can help firefighters protect firefighters from the stress and exposure to trauma and assist them in coping better.
Firefighters, Depression and PTSD
Dr. Will Brooks, Ed.D.
Dr. Brooks is a retired firefighter who was a Founder and President of the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation. He’s written about firefighters and Critical Incident Stress and has presented his findings to fire service organizations, as well as private and public sector organizations, across Canada.
There is no doubt that firefighters and other first responders do sometimes experience PTSD. It has been my privilege to listen to several first responders who could be accurately diagnosed with PTSD.
However, recent articles and “studies” purporting to be seeing PTSD in groups of firefighters are alarming in the use of rates for this diagnosis. A quick sample of these efforts indicates ranges from 17-24% of a cohort of firefighters who could be said to have PTSD.
Walk into any fire station and ask the crew if anyone has ever suffered from depression. Watch the result. In the average house, silence is the most probable response. Silence, averted glances and changes in body language, all of which say “Let’s not go there.” This is by no means always the response, but it is typical and may be part of what harms our firefighters.
Nathalie Michaud, Former Firefighter and PTSD Suffer/Survivor
I live with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and it lives with me. I got diagnosed in the Fall of 2014; it hit me like a ton of bricks and sucked the air out of me. I had no idea that all the symptoms that I had for the past 5 years were due to PTSD. I thought I was “just” depressed or “just” losing my mind.
I started abusing prescription drugs and over the counter drugs and things went from bad to worse. In July of 2014, my doctor then diagnosed me as having major depression, pulled me off work and told me I should enter a facility for my drinking problem. Of course I did not!
So then September 2014 comes along and the PTSD diagnosis “grenades” lands itself on me. I got worse and did more harm to myself. My desperation and my need to “make it all stop” brought me to making the only choice I thought I had.
After I received the diagnosis of my PTSD in late Summer 2014, I was partly relieved because now I knew why I felt and thought the way I did. It didn’t make it any easier to accept, but now that there was a name for it, a bit of the “ET” syndrome went away.
I had choices: accept PTSD or be angry. I figured, may as well be “friends” with it so I can get close enough to understand. This isn’t a monster under my bed nor is it a skeleton in my closet… unless I let it.
Strategy for Coping with the Stresses of Life and the Job
Leckey Harrison: Raise Your Resilience
Animals in the wild naturally shake after a traumatic experience and don’t suffer from trauma-related conditions such as PTSD. Unfortunately, humans have “pathologized” this shaking and suppress it to keep from being perceived as weak or afraid.
We can’t evolve quickly enough to adapt to the pace of change today. Fifteen thousand years ago, we actually fought or fled in response to physical threats. Today, our fight-or-flight system gets activated by things like alarm clocks, traffic, and layoffs, and we rarely discharge the resulting survival energy by actually fighting or fleeing. TRE enables us to discharge this energy at will and return to a state of balance.
Tension Releasing Exercises (TRE®) stretch and slightly fatigue muscles, a process that induces therapeutic tremors. These tremors release deep muscular patterns of stress, tension, and trauma, calm the nervous system, and help the body return to a state of balance.
Nick Halmasy, MACP: A career of trauma: Acceptance and strategies to promote post-traumatic growth
Imagine for a moment, that our stance, our drive, our entire philosophy was geared toward being aware of hazardous materials. Not to strive for technician level, able to comfortably handle any hazardous material incident. Imagine the bragging rights and comradery that would come from whoever could be more aware.
Difficult? Of course it is, because in the fire service, we strive toward being as educated and skilled as possible. We want technician-level certifications to show, not only our awareness, but our expertise. Only a few in this service are comfortable with wanting to stand on the side lines and not get their hands dirty. Yet, when it comes to our mental wellness, we demand nothing beyond awareness.
Nick Halmasy spent a decade in the Fire Service. He spent the majority of that time as a Fire Instructor and sat on various committees within the fire service. He has completed a Master’s of Arts in Counselling and is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying).
After the Call is the culmination of his passion for First Responders and Mental Health Awareness. This site is not dedicated solely to the conversation of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder! Nick understands that the level of stress and pressure exercises itself in various ways within the people, and their families, that goes beyond a single diagnosis.
Nick often offers contrarian ideals to the current mental wellness atmosphere and works hard to correct and eliminate inaccurate information that is widely spread from media and other sources. Nick is open to starting conversations and offering input that is novel and strives to offer “not another boring mental wellness training”.
The 11th Hour program was developed to jumpstart the healing process so that those suffering from trauma can reclaim their lives, continue in their careers, and most importantly, reconnect with families and loved ones without feeling isolation or shame. Feel free to browse around the site and explore the therapy services that the 11th hour offers.
WARRIORS HEART – PTSD, ADDICTION AND CHEMICAL DEPENDENCY TREATMENT FOR ACTIVE MILITARY, VETERANS, AND FIRST RESPONDERS
Warriors Heart® provides private treatment to adult men and women 18 and older who are seeking inpatient treatment for chemical dependency, alcohol abuse, and co-occurring psychological disorders relating to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)or the psychological effects of MTBI (mild traumatic brain injury).
Peggy Sweeney: The Sweeney Alliance
Peggy is a one-person dynamo when it comes to those who work in public safety and their families. Below are just a few of the awesome resources that you can find at Peggy’s “hub”, Grieving Behind the Badge.
- At a Loss for Words: When Someone Dies by Suicide. A program to help departments and families touched by suicide.
- Finding Calm in the Chaos: A women only first responder retreat.
- How to Understand Grief Seminars (the HUGS program)
- Children Healing After Trauma
- Grief and the Chemically Dependent
- When a Child Dies
- Grief Visits the Classroom.