Code of Silence

Author: IAFF Staff

August 10, 2017

If you continue to have flashbacks or feelings of hopelessness, do you tell someone?

If you notice that a brother or sister appears more irritable or withdrawn lately, do you say something?

If a brother or sister repeatedly shows up for their shift hungover, will you cover for them?

In the fire service, the first instinct is to help. Yet, when it comes to their own behavioral health, fire fighters and paramedics are reluctant to ask for help, or they worry that talking about the problem means others will be burdened. There’s also the fear that others will pass judgement or lose trust when a person is struggling. As a result, too many fire fighters and paramedics remain silent when it comes to acknowledging behavioral health concerns.

This code of silence is rooted in stigma. The negative and distorted beliefs about mental health hang over the fire service — and society at large. Sadly, even when a fire department understands that physical and mental health are equally important and encourages treatment, individual fire fighters and paramedics still suffer from internalized stigma. Their own worries about how they will be perceived stop them from addressing their emotional injuries.  

But behavioral health issues cannot be ignored, denied or avoided. Covering for a brother or sister so they can sleep it off in an effort to protect them from discipline is not the answer. Far from helping or protecting, the code of silence can cause irreparable harm to fire fighters and paramedics, their careers and their families.

Speak Up and Help Break the Code of Silence

Whether you’re the one struggling with a behavioral health issue, or you know someone who is, there are actions you can take to help break the code of silence:

  • Reach Out: If you are struggling, reach out and get the help you deserve. Just as you would seek treatment for a back injury, you deserve and should get professional help for emotional injuries affecting you on the job and at home.
  • Share, Listen and Help: If you’re concerned about someone else, share that concern, be a good listener and steer them to help.
  • Choose Your Words Wisely: Realize that every belittling joke, offhanded comment or misplaced belief fuels stigma and contributes to the code of silence. Ultimately, it prevents your brothers and sisters from seeking the help they may desperately need and deserve.
    • As stigma within the fire service decreases, lives will be saved. Do your part.

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