October 18, 2017
As a fire fighter or first responder, you’re trained to handle traumatic situations on a daily basis, but not the aftereffects they have on your mental health. Constantly witnessing tragedies leaves nearly 20 percent of American fire fighters with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that contributes to the high rate of suicide among fire service men and women. That’s why looking out for your coworkers’ mental health, just as much as their physical safety, is essential. But how do you help a brother or sister who may be struggling with this internal battle? Staying silent is not the answer — a conversation can go farther than you think to save a life.
There are many visible symptoms of PTSD, with some of the most common being changes in behavior. The following changes can all be signs of PTSD:
Stigmas survive through subconscious behaviors, jokes and conversations. Whether or not anyone in your firehouse has mental health struggles, be mindful of attitudes that perpetuate the stigma around PTSD. Joining in on “suck it up, buttercup” kind of talk or other belittling jokes only discourages those struggling from speaking up and getting help.
Why Talk About It?
In 2015, almost 47 percent of fire fighters had suicidal thoughts or ideas, and more than 19 percent of them made plans to kill themselves. Since that year, more fire fighter lives have been lost to suicide than in the line of duty. PTSD does not go away if kept quiet — it only gets worse. When you start a conversation about mental health, you create a space of safety and trust between you and your coworker. Saying “I’m here if you need to talk” lets them know that it’s okay to open up about their PTSD without fear of judgment. This can be the first step in getting the treatment they need, so your brother or sister in the service doesn’t become a statistic.
Discussing the incident following the run can be a great opportunity for fire fighters to process the difficult emotions and trauma they experience. Take it from IAFF member Mike James, who struggled with alcoholism and PTSD as a young fire fighter. “People could see I was struggling, but they either didn’t or wouldn’t say or do anything about it. Now in the fire service, we’re working on educating people about the signs and symptoms of PTSD and addiction, but back then, it was just a ‘suck it up, buttercup’ mentality.” Now in recovery, James knows that talking through a difficult call after returning to the firehouse is much more beneficial than staying silent.
Letting someone know that you’re there to listen and not judge can sometimes be enough for a coworker to open up to you. These pointers can help guide your conversation when you’re ready to talk heart-to-heart with a coworker:
Having an open and honest conversation with your brother or sister in the fire service can ultimately lead them to get the counseling and help they need, so you both can fight more than fire for years to come.
If you are experiencing PTSD, alcoholism or drug dependence, help and hope are closer than you think. Call the IAFF Center of Excellence — it’s free and confidential, and there’s no pressure to commit to treatment. What do you have to lose? Reach out today and get started on the path to healing.
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.