Do you have 40 minutes for mental health–yours and others?

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

A couple of weeks ago I hosted a roundtable discussion on first-responder mental health issues for publication in the next couple of weeks. My four panelists included: a firefighter with a Psy.D. in psychology; a retired firefighter and business owner for Raise Your Resilience; a former first responder and emergency manager living with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury and the uncertain road of multiple sclerosis; and a firefighter who had just lost her job as a firefighter following her PTSD diagnosis.

This is a very personal and emotional video; please be aware this will trigger many emotions for those who watch it.

This is the full 20-minute version of our documentary “Beyond The Call “.
The London Professional Fire Fighters Association, partnering with the London Fire Department and Fanshawe College are proud to release “Beyond the Call “, a video currently used as a training tool for our members and now released to the public and other fire departments and first responders to help understand and identify the dangers of PTSD.

Our goal in producing this video was to highlight and educate the many dangers faced by the fire service and to support ALL First Responders suffering with PTSD and to prevent others from suffering alone and in silence beyond the call. We need to educate and discuss the facts about PTSD and other occupational stresses now. This week at the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association Convention in Ottawa, was the first large premier of the video. We encourage all departments to use this video to start a dialog and make a change with your members.

I recently received the following message from a firefighter; I’ve redacted any references that could connect the individual to their department for obvious reasons. I found it quite disturbing (As I’m sure you will, as well, even with the redacted information)

I enjoyed your recent Articles. I work XX XXX XXXX XXXXXX. What happens in XX XXX XXXX XXXXXX stays in the X XXXXXXX. I work on a Native American Reservation in XXX X XXXXXXX XX XXXXXXXX. Our employer, XXX XXXXX,treats us OK but our chief is oblivious to PTSD and Mental Health. Our department runs mostly trauma. The average lifespan is only 52 years old. We have a high suicide rate, high Infant mortality rate, high arson rate and extremely remote MVC’s. I used to be our Fire Lieutenant and Training officer. I once brought in mental Health from XXXXXX but my Chief did not support it. I was out 11 months. I returned as a line Firefighter and RBKA. I have watched this Dept chew guys up and spit them out. I am looking for advice on how to approach this issue.

With the individual’s permission, I sent that message along to panel members as well as a couple of mental health professionals from my LinkedIn network of connections. All of them immediately reached out to this firefighter and hopefully he and his department can get some help.

During our panel discussion we discussed a term that hasn’t gotten much attention thus far in the firefighter mental health conversation: emotional or mental hygiene. We’ll go to the doctor when we feel flu-ish or a nagging pain. So why don’t we see a health professional when we feel emotional pain: guilt, loss, loneliness?

Too many of us deal with common psychological-health issues on our own, says Guy Winch. But we don’t have to. He makes a compelling case to practice emotional hygiene — taking care of our emotions, our minds, with the same diligence we take care of our bodies.

So there you have it. For your investment of 40 minutes of your time you’ve become more informed and educated about first responder mental health and mental hygiene issues than the average firefighter or fire officer. But please make a personal commitment to continue to learn and increase your capacity to protect your own mental health and to better understand how we must make mental hygiene part of our time-honored “buddy system”.

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].