July 4, 2018
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), nearly one in five adults in the United States lives with a mental illness. Unfortunately, this number is even higher for fire fighters and paramedics. Despite the large number of people grappling with these issues, open conversation about mental illness is still largely taboo — particularly in the fire fighting community. When it comes to mental health in IAFF members, this stigma has real consequences. Silently struggling and unable to seek help, hundreds of fire fighters take their own lives every year, and the number only continues to grow.
If you personally grapple with mental health issues as a fire fighter or paramedic, this stigma can make you feel alone and overlooked. However, the good news is that there is a way to combat the stigma associated with mental illness, and help other fire fighters get the help they need: talking about your own struggles with mental health. While sharing your mental health experiences with someone else may leave you feeling vulnerable, pushing back against initial feelings of hesitation won’t just be beneficial to you, it can also help improve stigma surrounding mental health issues in general. Talking openly about mental health can:
The first person that talking about your condition benefits is you. When you’re going through a difficult time, it can be hard to make sense of your thoughts and feelings. You may simply feel overwhelmed, but find it difficult to articulate what you’re experiencing. Without outside input, it’s easy to stay stuck in a spiral of depression, anxiety or anger for weeks, months or even years.
In most cases, the best way to manage your thoughts is to reach out to someone who cares about you. When you’re struggling, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to bear the burden of that struggle alone. Instead, you can invite a friend out for a cup of coffee, call a sibling, or just let the people who love you know what you’re going through. Simply finding the words to describe what you’re feeling isn’t just cathartic, it can also help you better understand your own feelings. Your loved ones can act as a sounding board for your experiences, helping you clarify your feelings and find ways to improve your situation.
It may not be obvious on the surface, but the person you choose to confide in about your mental health issues might be silently dealing with their own. Many people are good at keeping their own problems hidden. According to Psychology Today, more than half of all mental illnesses go untreated. If the person you reach out to is also in the fire service, the chances of them relating to your experiences are even greater.
Maybe your loved one has felt stressed and on edge for months, but never thought that a mental illness might be the cause. Maybe they suspect that they have PTSD, anxiety or depression, but are afraid to talk about it for fear of being judged or dismissed. Whatever the case, hearing you talk about your own difficulties could help them feel comfortable enough to confront their own, and open up the possibility for treatment if necessary.
If a person doesn’t directly deal with mental illness, it can be difficult for them to understand the experiences of someone who lives with one. The only way to bridge this gap is through communication. Even if someone doesn’t deal with a chronic mental illness, they likely understand what it’s like to be anxious, worried, sad, hurt or angry. By sharing your experiences with compassionate friends, family members or co-workers, they can better understand what you’re going through, treat you with compassion instead of condemnation, and extend this same attitude to other people in their life who may be struggling.
It’s never too late to take back your life. If you or someone you know deals with behavioral health issues, such as addiction, PTSD, anxiety or depression, help is available. Reach out to a representative at the IAFF Center of Excellence today for more information.