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Firefighter mental health: Stop sucking it up

Despite the encouraging trend to address mental health in the fire service, there is still resistance and misconception


There are times when coincidences are just that — unrelated events. Other times they can be more telling of trends.

Let me explain. Just the other day we were putting the final touches on the latest digital edition of Fire Chief before making it live. The entire issue focuses on firefighter mental health. You can read it here.

At the same time, without knowing the digital issue's contents, noted firefighting and military writer Jesse Heitz sent an email asking if I'd like to publish his piece on firefighter mental health.

It was a coincidence in the purest sense. Yet, it's telling of the growing acceptance that firefighter mental health is an issue in need of attention. And that is a good thing.

Jeff Dill's Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance showed 112 reported cases of firefighter suicides in 2015. And who knows how many went unreported. For comparison's sake, the U.S. Fire Administration reported 87 on-duty firefighter deaths last year.

If we can wrap our minds around the firefighter brain issue and improve the fire service's mental health, we can save lives. Not only will we prevent suicides, but reduce accidental deaths caused by substance abuse. We'll also improve the lives of those suffering job-related mental health illness like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

But, it won't be easy. Despite the encouraging trend to address it; there is still resistance.

A recent news story about Minnesota firefighter Scott Geiselhart, whose suicide attempt set him on a path of recovery and talking to other firefighters about PTSD, drew some harsh comments.

They represent the "suck it up, buttercup" mentality that believes mental illness is overstated and all you need to do is rub some dirt on it and get back out there. They represent the notion that depression, PTSD and the like are weaknesses that can be overcome by a few off-color jokes and some cold ones with the guys.

There are a couple of flaws with the "suck it up, buttercup" way of thinking. First, it's the same wrongheaded logic that was used to try to stop the Safety Sallies from making SCBA, seatbelts and bunker pants mandatory. It ignores the depth of the problem in favor of a macho idealist view of what firefighting should be.

Second, it ignores that firefighters are not created equal. Each of us comes to the job with a different set of mental and physical strengths and weaknesses.

Some of us may be very adept at rubbing some dirt on it and getting back out there. Many may need help processing the stress. It's not all that different from a firefighter with terrific strength and subpar endurance looking for ways to train so as to not get winded so fast.

Arguably it takes more guts to speak out, as Geiselhart and others have, about struggling with mental health issues than it does to suck it up. I applaud their courage as this is an area of great potential to improve firefighter health and well-being.

As more speak out and seek help, and as we design better awareness and intervention programs, more firefighters will have happier home lives. Eventually, we'll see the firefighter suicide numbers drop as did line of duty deaths following safety awareness — and that will be no coincidence.

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