posted August 26, 2019
Like most emergency responders, firefighters are expected to be calm, level-headed and able to face even the most challenging situations with courage. Unfortunately, the culture of the fire service is often one where those expectations extend beyond the emergency and into the firehouse. Until recently, firefighters have long been expected to contain their emotions and approach their jobs with logic and reason, with the understanding that only those who have the ability to successfully manage the stress and emotional aspects of the job are cut out for success.
As a result, many firefighters have suppressed their feelings, with devastating consequences to their mental health. Research indicates that an overwhelming majority of firefighters have experienced mental health issues as a result of their jobs, including PTSD, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. For example, one study of 7,000 firefighters found that 65% of firefighters struggle with memories of difficult calls, while 59% have had family or relationship problems as a result of their jobs. Substance abuse issues were experienced by 27%, while 19% have had thoughts of suicide. Despite these issues, some firefighters are reluctant to seek help, for fear of seeming unfit for the job, while those have sought help from their employer assistance programs haven’t always found them helpful.
Results of other surveys and research have revealed similar findings, pointing to the inescapable conclusion that mental health resources need to be a bigger priority among fire service leaders. In fact, software company ESO predicted that a top trend for fire service in 2019 would be increased awareness of mental health and a more proactive response to the overall well-being of firefighters. Based on some of the programs and initiatives being put into place on national and regional levels, and the growing number of fire departments working on education, response and support programs, it appears that trend is gaining momentum.
One of the major issues facing fire departments in terms of mental health is many people lack awareness and understanding of mental health issues. Additionally, leaders from the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance note some firefighters believe that they are expected to “tough it out,” ignoring problems for fear that asking for help indicates weakness and could put their jobs in jeopardy. Many also believe that they aren’t vulnerable to mental health issues; after all, they have training and have already dealt with so many challenging situations.
Because of this culture, organizations like the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance are working closely with fire departments to develop mental health education resources. These programs remove stigmas surrounding mental health while also giving firefighters the tools they need to identify issues in themselves and in their colleagues and respond appropriately. Another organization, the Code Green Campaign, has a similar aim, working to raise awareness of mental health issues and providing educational materials, courses and resources that give firefighters skills and tools to care for themselves and others. Educational objectives like these are also making their way into firefighter education and training, providing new firefighters with the skills they need to preserve their mental health from the moment they begin their careers.
Understanding the First Responder Mindset
Dr. Robin Grant-Hall, a clinical psychologist who worked with police officers after the Sandy Hook shootings, believes that firefighters and other emergency responders do have differences in their brains that allow them to respond to emergencies and be more resilient. The same brain characteristics that allow individuals to remain calm and level-headed during an emergency improve resiliency, allowing first responders to repeatedly respond to situations that would lead to serious trauma in others. Despite this resiliency; however, it’s only natural for the human brain to become overwhelmed by repeated exposure to trauma and stress, so it’s likely that even the most well-adjusted firefighters will eventually succumb to a mental health issue related to their job.
This understanding of how the brain works is a key aspect of changing the fire service culture. Simply put, the fact that no one is immune to the emotional and mental health effects of regularly dealing with emergencies and their fallout should serve as motivation to provide better support and education services. Changing the fire house environment and establishing one that is supportive and understanding, where everyone is aware of the signs of an issue both within themselves and each other, will go a long way toward removing the stigma of mental health issues and reducing the number of firefighters lost to suicide, the rates of substance abuse, and other mental health problems. It’s an ongoing process, and one that requires changing long-standing beliefs, but the tide is shifting and the trend toward healthier firefighters is likely to gain momentum in the coming years.
To learn more about preparing for all aspects of working in the fire service, including education, visit ColumbiaSouthern.edu/Fire.
Addressing Firefighter Health and Wellness [Webinar]
The Spirit of a First Responder