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Taking care of your mental hygiene as a firefighter

Embracing mental wellness should be the current cultural landscape in the fire service

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“It should come as no surprise to anyone in the fire service that the leading cause of death for firefighters is suicide. The staggering numbers show that more firefighters take their own lives than those who die in the line of duty,” writes Haag.

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By Jason Haag

As firefighters, we spend most, if not all, of our energy and focus on helping others. We sign up to be there for others in their times of need. We even acknowledge that we might have to risk everything for a stranger. For some, fighting for the well-being of others is what pulls us in. But what about our own well-being? How much time do we spend taking care of ourselves or our brothers and sisters in the fire service?

When we talk about scene safety, we always put ourselves first, our partners second, and then the victim(s) third. What about when we’re off duty or not on a call?

It should come as no surprise to anyone in the fire service that the leading cause of death for firefighters is suicide. The staggering numbers show that more firefighters take their own lives than those who die in the line of duty. The fact that our own brothers and sisters are reaching the point where they feel taking their own lives is the only way out is nothing short of alarming.

We have two significant responsibilities when we aren’t serving those in our community. First, we have to be cognizant of our own mental health and well-being as well as that of our brothers and sisters. Second, we need to be aware and attentive to the mental hygiene of the other firefighters we work with. While some may think that what we should look for in ourselves and others would be the same, this couldn’t be more wrong. What we feel and experience ourselves may manifest totally differently — or not show at all — in those we work with in our departments.

Your Personal Mental Hygiene as a Firefighter

Let’s examine ourselves first. How do we care for our own mental hygiene? Put another way, how can we provide psychological first aid to ourselves?

The first step is recognition. We need to be alert and aware when something isn’t quite normal:

  • Are we not taking interest in what we used to?
  • Are we sleeping more or less than normal?
  • Have we become desensitized?
  • Are we anxious about things we never used to be?
  • Do you feel burned out?
  • Have we been on a call or calls that still bother us? Have we talked about them with someone else?
  • Do we feel like we are at the end of our support system?

These are all incredibly tough questions to ask ourselves, let alone answer.

If you find it difficult to answer these questions, or if the answers you’re coming up with are disturbing to you, you are not alone. There is a multitude of resources available. The first resource is those in your department. Many times, talking with your peers can be some of the best therapy available. You may be surprised to find out that you’re not the only person going through what you are experiencing.

There are other, higher-level resources and firefighter tools to improve mental wellness available as well. Your department may have an in-house Employee Assistance Program (EAP), a peer support program, firefighter continuing education (CE), or other avenues for help. Branching out further, there are many other resources available to firefighters and emergency service personnel for mental health and stress management. Practically every firefighter organization has embraced firefighter mental health initiatives and offers resources, usually free of charge. Notable independent organizations are the Code Green Campaign and the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance. These are standalone initiatives dedicated to responder and firefighter mental health.

Watching Out for Others and Changing Our Culture

What about others in our departments? Pay close attention to the people you work with on a daily basis. Changes in mood and behavior can be the first sign that something is wrong:

  • Are previously active members not showing up anymore?
  • Do previously engaged members seem withdrawn?
  • Are you noticing acute personality changes or mood swings in your peers?
  • Was there a particular incident that precipitated these changes?
  • Has their conversation or tone become more negative?
  • Do they talk about what things would be like without them?

It is imperative that we be observant of any changes in our fellow department members. The simple act of reaching out to talk can truly save a life. It’s also important that you mention your concerns to trusted leaders who can connect you and your peers to valuable resources. Whether you are struggling yourself or are concerned for someone else, it’s important to understand you cannot and should not do this alone. Gather a peer support team so that you can share the load and bolster one another.

Asking for Help

The biggest hurdle that we must overcome if we (as individuals and as an industry) want to improve is the negative stigma associated with seeking assistance with mental health. For so long, the fire service mentality has been that anyone who needs mental health care is weak and that they should have known what they signed up for. This is entirely false. If this culture exists in your mind or in your department, it needs to be overcome immediately. If you are an officer or leader in your department and this culture exists, for your own good and the good of your team, it needs to be eliminated.

If you don’t know where to begin, try starting small. Make a habit of asking your team members how they are really doing. Share your own experiences. Talk often and regularly about the importance of mental health and seeking help. This cannot be a one-and-done discussion. It needs to be an ongoing, open conversation. Establish yourself as a friend and a safe place where others can come when they need help. Beginning now to create connections and foster good communication will help both you and others when challenges arise. As you do, you can foster a welcoming culture in your department, increase your sense of fulfillment in your job, and even experience firefighter job growth.

Evaluating Firefighter Mental Hygiene

Embracing mental wellness should be the current cultural landscape in the fire service. Our greatest calling in the fire service is to save lives. These lives should include our own and our brothers and sisters. Do as much as you can for your mental health and that of your co-workers.

For more information about how your well-being impacts your performance as a firefighter, check out this on-demand Lexipol webinar, “How Physical and Mental Wellbeing Affects Performance.” You’ll get some great tips and interesting insights into the topic of firefighter mental hygiene.

About the author

Jason Haag, CCEMT-P, CIC, SFI, is the Quality Assurance Analyst and Clinical Educator for MultiMed Billing in Baldwinsville, NY. He has more than 17 years of fire and EMS experience. He started as an EMT in 2003 and advanced to the Paramedic level in 2006. In 2008, Jason studied at the University of Maryland Baltimore College to obtain a certification in critical care transport. Jason worked as a CCEMT-P since 2008 and has experience transporting critically ill patients utilizing ventilators, IV pumps, advanced pharmacology, and RSI. He was an EMS supervisor from 2010 to 2018. Jason successfully earned his CIC certification and teaches for many agencies across New York. He also speaks at conferences, hosting classes and reviewing texts for Jones and Bartlett Learning. Jason continues his EMS advocacy through his active involvement with Finger Lakes Regional EMS Council, NY SEMSCO, Wayne County ALS, AHA instructing, NASEMSE, and NAEMT. His involvement with Geneva Fire Department, Boy Scouts, Masons, Rotary, and Ducks Unlimited will occupy his days after his daily family time with his wife, Jami, and son, Gavin.