How to Pay it Forward

Author: IAFF Staff

May 18, 2018

Fire fighters often experience enormous amounts of pressure that can develop into higher a rate of mental illness, addiction and suicide.  Some fire fighters may be left to self-medicate, which over time can worsen a condition, without the proper treatment or support to improve their mental health.

According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), it’s “estimated that about 25 percent of all fire fighters and first responders struggle with some form of addiction.” The most common mental health disorders that fire fighters struggle with are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, substance use disorder and co-occurring mental health disorders.

Although these issues can affect anyone, they don’t have to be the legacy that fire fighters in recovery leave behind. The fire service passes on many traditions from one generation to the next, and here are some ways fire fighters in recovery can pay it forward to their co-workers and community.

Man struggling with mental health with palms against the wall and his head down

Become a Peer Supporter

Communication is critical for recovery and paying it forward to fellow fire fighters. Sharing experiences with co-workers can help an fire fighter though their own recovery and help them recognize symptoms that they may be unaware of.

Peer support is an effective method for providing encouragement to occupational groups, including fire fighters. The IAFF offers a Peer Support Training Program that encourages members to develop and maintain effective peer programs with their local stations. The two-day interactive course is taught by behavioral health clinicians and exp.erienced colleagues from the fire service.

Share Your Story

There are various ways a fire fighter can inspire others with their recovery story. They could become a speaker at events promoting mental health and recovery from substance use. Sharing experiences can be therapeutic, and help others realize that they aren’t alone with some of the emotions they may be experiencing.

Start Group Exercise

Three fire fighters participating in a group exercise class

Forming an exercise group can be beneficial to a fire department or community in general. Exercise is important for health and can help clear your mind. Exercising can also help you release stress. Because you’ll be doing it in a group, you’ll have the peer support that is essential for a fire fighter’s — or anyone’s — mental health.

Create and Maintain Positive Relationships

This may be one of the most mutually beneficial ways to pay it forward. Positive relationships encourage growth for both individuals involved. If you have a positive relationship with a fellow fire fighter, they’ll feel more comfortable sharing their stresses and painful emotions with you and you’ll feel more inclined to make yourself available as an ally for them.

Having social interaction is one of the best ways to remain strong, persist forward and get help when you need it. Through a positive relationship with a fellow fire fighter, you may also inspire them to create a genuine connection with someone else who may need help.

If you are struggling with substance use or a mental illness, know that you are not alone. If things don’t feel right, listen to your body and talk to someone. Call the IAFF Center of Excellence to learn more about treatment options and support. Phones are staffed with professionals who understand and can help get you into a program that works.

We can help. Call 240-545-5141 or

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