How to Talk to a Coworker With PTSD

Author: IAFF Staff

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.  

Know the Warning Signs

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:  

  • Increased irritability or getting upset when reminded of a certain call
  • Being late to shifts or shirking duties around the firehouse
  • Admitting to extra stress at home
  • Seeming withdrawn from conversations or actively avoiding others
  • Increased alcohol use or substance abuse

Don’t Reinforce the Stigma

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.

Status Checks After Calls

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.

One-On-One Conversations With Coworkers

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:

  • Talk during a time when you won’t be interrupted. It may be hard to find a time like this during the workday, but it’s well worth it to have this conversation in private, just the two of you, away from the stresses of the firehouse or people who’d want to eavesdrop.
  • Ask open-ended questions. You could mention your concerns directly, saying something along the lines of “I’ve noticed that you [specific behavior]. How are you doing?” This shows you notice something’s not right and gives them the chance to give you more than yes or no answers.
  • Be prepared to listen. No matter what your team member admits to you, hold back any judgement or accusations; this conversation should be a safe space for them to express their issues without fear. Their thoughts and feelings should be validated, not dismissed. Don’t bother with platitudes (e.g. “everything will work out in the end,”) either, as they can make you seem as if you’re not really empathizing with what your coworker is going through.  
  • Don’t be afraid to ask “are you considering suicide?” While it’s jarring to even think about asking, this question can actually help someone struggling. In many cases, fire fighters commit suicide because they feel the repercussions of speaking up are too great, or that it’s unacceptable to even think about hurting yourself when you’ve spent your career trying to save lives. Addressing suicide directly shows that no topic is too taboo to talk about and work through. Talking about the reality of suicide further diminishes the stigma around mental health struggles, which is a goal everyone in the force should work toward.
  • Have resources at the ready. Your conversation can be the starting point for recovery from PTSD. Confidential inpatient treatment may be the next step in the healing process. Recommend the IAFF Center of Excellence hotline to your coworker, even if they don’t intend to call, just so they know their options. Our hotline is open for any fire fighter to call and talk through their PTSD or begin the path to treatment.

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.

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