4 steps to help a mentally distressed firefighter

A firefighter dealing with mental-health problems is not damaged beyond repair; bringing that firefighter back from the brink takes care and skill

By Mark Lamplugh Jr.

We work day after day with our fellow firefighters and know them better than anyone else. And we all know firefighters who may be struggling with personal issues.

With 20 to 30 percent of firefighters battling addiction, PTSD, depression or other mental health issues, it's time we all look at each other and offer help.

By their nature, firefighters are quick to help just about anyone. Yet, when it comes to other firefighters with mental-health issues, we are often hesitant, even paralyzed.

The main reason we hesitate to help is that we don't understand the thing we're up against or we don't know how to help. We'll sweep the problem under the rug or put our blinders on and hope it goes away.

Unfortunately, doing nothing is the worst choice. Ignoring the problem only makes matters worse. Understanding how to help is the first step in helping each other.

Here are four steps you can take to help a firefighter who is struggling with mental-health issues.

Step 1: Recognizing the problem
This first step in fixing a problem is being able to recognize that there is one. Usually, there are early signs when someone is suffering from behavioral or mental-health issues.

Subtle clues in a person's actions could call for early intervention. Knowing what to look for is the best way to start planning to help. Look out for these telltale signs.

  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Dramatic fluctuations or changes in eating patterns.
  • Unexplained physical symptoms.
  • Difficulty managing anger.
  • Compulsive or obsessive behaviors.
  • Chronic tiredness or lack of energy.
  • Memory problems.
  • Shunning social activity.
  • Lack of sex drive,
  • Noticeable mood swings and erratic behavior.

If you start noticing one or more of these signs, it might be time to take action; it's time to get into step two.

Step 2: Planning the intervention
There are many parts that go into planning an intervention. If you have doubts, always consult a professional. Hire an interventionist are if you need guidance.

Be careful with an intervention. Although they are designed for the highest likelihood that the person will accept the help, interventions may also bring out anger, resentment and fear.

Start talking to the troubled firefighter's friends and family. Find people who care about the person and want to help. Involve the department chaplain, local clergy member or a department EAP if necessary.

Schedule a meeting with all of the people involved in the intervention, especially individuals who have been directly affected by the individual's behavior. All attending the meeting need to write how this person's behavior is affecting them and what the consequences will be if they don't go into treatment.  

Some consequences could include spouse and kids moving out, reporting the issue to chief, having friends no longer make contact, and anything else that might get the person to say yes. For a set of consequences to work, the participants have to be willing to follow through.

Step 3: Completing the intervention
This is the most difficult and the most important part of the process. Have the individual meet everyone at a location of your choice without telling the person why.

Once everyone is together, each person will read the letter they wrote about the person's problem. It is important to describe specific incidents where the person behavior caused problems and how it hurt you and them. Present the treatment option and explain consequences if they don't accept.

Do this in a caring way; don't be angry. Say something like, "Your drinking has hurt me because...." If at any point the person is willing to accept help, then immediately follow through. Don't give them the opportunity to change their mind. 

Have a facility ready and on stand by. Before the intervention, do all the leg work to see what facility would be best, where their insurance works, travel arrangements and other things. Remove excuses like, "I can't go because I have a dog," and "I can't miss work," and "What about my kids?"

Once the person is in treatment and getting help, it's time to offer support.

Step 4: Support
Getting help for issues in life is hard enough, but coming back after rehab or getting clean, can be a struggle to adjust. Supporting the firefighter who is coming back from treatment is a must. Positive encouragement can go a long way.

If the issue was substance abuse, plan sober activities and only invite sober friends. A person who has just completed substance treatment needs to remain abstinent from mood or mind-altering substances. Inviting the person to the bar after shift is not going to help them.

Encourage the individual to go to follow up care if it's suggested by the facility they were in. Show them how important their recovery is to you and the department.

The bottom line for supporting is really to just be there when they need you, and even more if they say they don't.

Behavioral and mental health issues can be treated. Firefighters who suffer from these problems aren't broken. There are many ways for them to get the help they need and come back on the job better than ever.

Watching out for each other, looking for signs of distress should be second nature. If you or anyone on your shift needs help please don't hesitate and get it today.

About the author

Mark Lamplugh Jr. is a fourth-generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester (Pa.) Fire Company. He is now a national treatment consultant with American Addiction Centers specializing in First Responder Services. He can be reached for comment at mlamplugh@contactaac.com

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