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May 25, 2018
Most working Americans clock out at the end of their shift and leave their work at the office. But for fire fighters, work is harder to shake off at the end of the day.
Fire fighters are not only responsible for fighting fires — they respond to vehicle accidents and incidents, including terrorist attacks, mass shootings and natural disasters. Whether it’s a sudden line-of-duty-death or the buildup of cumulative daily stress, dealing with painful emotions is an expectation of the job.
If these stresses and emotions are continually buried or left ignored, they can develop into more serious conditions, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Fire fighters need support to properly address and manage their stress and to continue doing their job to the best of their ability.
When a fire fighter returns from a particularly difficult call, the trauma can affect some instantly. PTSD symptoms usually develop within the first three months after trauma, but in some cases, they may appear after months or even years have passed.
Fact: Anyone who has been exposed to a traumatic incident can develop PTSD.
Most people picture hardened war veterans when they think about PTSD. While the disorder does commonly affect veterans — estimates reveal that anywhere from 11 to 30 percent of soldiers can develop PTSD in their lifetime — other occupational groups are also at risk.
Fact: People respond differently to trauma and not everyone who endures a horrific event will develop PTSD.
Some people experience short-term symptoms, including insomnia, anxiety and depression following a traumatic event. Others may undergo post-traumatic growth, an experience where an individual who has been through trauma finds new meaning and purpose in life.
Fact: PTSD has nothing to do with mental strength.
PTSD is not a character flaw. Some individuals who experience PTSD may have a genetic predisposition to anxiety — not unlike a genetic predisposition to heart disease. Others may develop PTSD because the trauma they experienced was particularly horrific, or because the traumatic experience lasted for a long time.
Most individuals with PTSD do not recover simply by trying harder to be healthy. Professional treatment is critical. This admission can be especially difficult in the firefighting profession. Many fire fighters feel like they’re supposed to give help, not ask for it. Seeking help is not an admission of defeat, but rather an essential step in addressing a mental illness.
Fact: PTSD can be treated and many individuals recover to live a healthy and productive life.
Clinicians have developed multiple evidence-based treatment methods that reduce the symptoms associated with PTSD, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), prolonged exposure therapy (PET) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EDMR). Psychiatric medications may also help manage some symptoms. With the right support, it is possible to live a normal life while also coping with PTSD.
Fact: PTSD is a medical issue.
Like any other illness, PTSD can take a serious toll on a fire fighter’s ability to perform their job. Reduced productivity, increased absences and concentration problems are just a few of the problems they may experience. In-service trainings and open conversations about mental illnesses can help fire fighters recognize the importance of this issue. Improved communication can also reduce the stigma and encourage fire fighters and paramedics with PTSD to seek help.
Many fire fighters think it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help, but firefighting is a tough job — both mentally and physically — and they need to know it’s okay to talk about their struggles. Remember there is no shame in seeking treatment for PTSD and that it is a real issue that needs to be addressed. You don’t have to battle PTSD alone. Call the IAFF Center of Excellence to learn more about treatment options and support. Phones are staffed around the clock with professionals who understand and can help.
Medical Disclaimer: The IAFF Center of Excellence aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.