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What American firefighters can learn from Australia’s bushfires: Protect your mental health

Think managing stress is just a part of your job? It might be worth reconsidering how it affects your health.

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By Yoona Ha, FireRescue1 BrandFocus Staff

The world hasn’t seen anything quite like the recent bushfires of Australia, and there’s good reason to believe that this conflagration won’t be the last of its kind.

What shouldn’t be forgotten is the need for psychological support and recovery for those on the front lines of this devastation.
What shouldn’t be forgotten is the need for psychological support and recovery for those on the front lines of this devastation. (image/Getty)

Just ask national science research agencies like Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, which estimates that there will be more fire weather as the planet warms. As of early February 2020, it’s estimated that more than 16 million acres have burned (that’s 80 times larger than the total area burned in the 2019 California wildfires, or an area about the size of West Virginia), and the fire has consumed dozens of lives and thousands of wildlife in the process.

Amid the breathtaking devastation and continued burning, many Americans and firefighters have offered both physical and financial aid – but what shouldn’t be forgotten is the need for psychological support and recovery for those on the front lines of this devastation.

“It’s becoming increasingly important for firefighters to be psychologically prepared. We’re seeing more ‘career fires’ – fires of the magnitude that we used to see once in our careers – more frequently,” said Sam DiGiovanna, who has over 33 years of fire service experience and served as the fire chief of the Monrovia Fire Department, just north of Los Angeles. “What we need is what I like to call ‘the mutual aid for the mind’ – when you need help, you should never be ashamed to ask for it.”

Firefighters at higher risk for PTSD, research shows

For firefighters, reporting to work can mean close encounters with danger and chaos, which sometimes means witnessing the death of civilians (including children) and sometimes even colleagues. The American Psychological Association includes witnessing natural disasters and climate-change induced extreme weather as traumatic experiences that have lasting effects.

Over time, these frequent exposures to stressful scenarios can take a negative toll on first responders’ mental health, sometimes resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder. According to a study published by the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, firefighters found that firefighters develop PTSD at rates ranging from 17 to 32%, which is higher than the national adult average of 7 to 12%.

If you’re not sure what the most common symptoms of PTSD are, they include but are not limited to:

  • Flashbacks, nightmares and recurring thoughts.
  • Emotional numbness.
  • Extreme worry, guilt, anger or hopelessness.
  • Avoidance of people, places or things that are reminders of the trauma.
  • A loss of interest in things that once gave pleasure.
  • Feeling anxious, on edge or jumpy, and startling easily.
  • Sleep issues.
  • Problems with alcohol, drugs or food.

Addressing the stigma of seeking therapy

“Unfortunately, getting help for your mental health is still very stigmatized in our field, but there is growing awareness among fire chiefs that counseling and therapy is a much-needed resource for our first responders,” said DiGiovanna, who now works as the chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, California.

This reality is something that Jana Tran, staff psychologist at the Houston Fire Department, knows all too well. She is one of the few staff psychologists at fire departments across the country, and her team focuses on at-risk populations. Sometimes that means offering free counseling support for firefighters at her department, but other times she provides mental health resources for local fire departments through mutual aid agreements.

Not every fire department has the resources available to hire a staff psychologist, but departments can find other alternatives to offer first responders the support they need. For instance, before the Houston Fire Department hired its staff psychologists, it leveraged peer support programs and other employee assistance programs that offered outside counseling resources.

Above all, a great starting point for departments is to recognize the need for a paradigm shift when it comes to asking for mental health support. One example could be fostering a culture of vulnerability where colleagues can talk about their positive experiences with counseling and therapy. This type of cultural shift requires fire leaders to take steps to address misconceptions and dissuade fears that asking for help can somehow affect a firefighter’s career or reputation.

“It’s already too late when you try to pull together resources after you lose a colleague from the worst-case scenario – suicide,” said Tran.

Beyond PTSD, marital problems are common

What Tran found from her practice is that it’s not just PTSD and trauma counseling that firefighters need – it’s also support for other interpersonal conflicts, such as marital or relationship distress. Her findings are supported by the growing body of research on the family relationship dynamics of first responders like firefighters.

“Being able to numb and compartmentalize their reaction to crises is what makes firefighters incredible at their job, but this is also the type of ‘superpower’ that can cause problems for their relationships at home,” said Tran. “What’s negated is the ability to emotionally connect, have empathy, to feel emotionally safe and communicate your needs. That type of vulnerability is not reinforced by their job or the image of a firefighter – their presentation is imbued by their history of trauma.”

How to find help

Many online resources can help you gauge whether it’s time to talk to a professional. Once you establish that it’s time to get that level of support,finding the right professional partner is key.

Finding a professional counselor who understands the challenges that come with fire service can seem difficult, but an increasing number of resources are available to firefighters in the U.S. For instance, you can research your department’s available resources, ask trusted colleagues who know of counselors they could recommend or even call the National Volunteer Fire Council’s free and confidential Fire/EMS National Helpline to identify resources available nearby.

“Mental health preventative programs are incredibly important, and we cannot wait to see the devastating aftermath of not taking a proactive role in taking care of our first responders,” Tran said.

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