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Mental rehab: Post-incident help for firefighters

The days of trying to tough out mental stress are over and rehab needs to include a mental-health component


The fire and emergency service takes a toll on our bodies both physically and mentally. Personnel tend to be conscious about taking care of their bodies physically and not paying as much attention to the mental aspect of things.

I serve on many committees and task forces for national projects, and I'm seeing more emphasis on the mental aspect for personnel. As the incidents of violent crimes rise, so does the impact it has on our mental psyche.

When I started in the fire and emergency service in the late 1970s, the attitude was to be able to handle the stressors of what you did and saw. Brush it off and go on to the next call.

Family and friends outside the industry often accused me of not having any emotions and being cold by nature. Those inside the industry were much like I was. That was how it was, and if you were not able to handle it — get out.

New attitude
Today, things are much different. We recognize that it is important to deal with the stressors we see — mass shootings, traumatic events and people we know injured or dead. We are all humans and, regardless of what we may think, we can only endure so much of the stressors before it causes havoc in our own lives.

Many diseases thrive on stress including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and all of these diseases can have a fatalistic outcome. There are also incidents of suicide and abuse as a result of the stressors from years on the job or even one very disturbing incident.

A friend who served many years in an urban environment responded to a major incident where a bridge collapsed and he had to remove some of the deceased victims, one of which was an 11-year-old girl. At the time he had no reaction to the incident.

Several months later he found himself broken down like a little kid crying over an incident that was what most of us would classify as a routine call. He carried the emotions of the major incident for a period of time, whereby the emotions finally took a hold of him and broke him. He took an early retirement shortly thereafter.

Many of us handle stressors in different ways. If we can get the help we need early on, it may mean the difference between an enjoyable life rather than one that could be like a ticking time bomb.

A different rehab
I find it interesting that we talk rehab for firefighters and we think about our physical bodies in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Yet when we talk about rehab to others they think of drug and alcohol abuse or rehabilitating after an injury or surgery.

Rehab is restoring our bodies to the state of normalcy. As emergency service personnel, part of our need is to rehab our minds too. Our policies and procedures should incorporate after-incident protocols.

At your next training session when you are discussing rehab, discuss incorporating the mental aspect of things. Having personnel talk about the incident early on can make long-lasting results for individuals.

Knowing that other personnel may have trouble dealing with the mental aspects of the incident helps to reassure individuals that they are not the only ones having difficulty dealing with the stressors. It does not always have to be the big calls; it can be something very simple that triggers our reactions.

Personnel in emergency services see the individuals at their worst. It is not easy and we need to start paying as much attention to the mental aspects of the incidents as we do the physical aspects. 

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