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‘Acknowledge the problem’: Volunteers call on FDs to support their behavioral health

Volunteers want more mental health services, increased staffing to relieve stress and culture change to eliminate lingering stigma

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Editor’s note: Attention volunteer firefighters: We need to hear from you! The IAFC is gathering perspectives from firefighters across the country and looking for more voices from the volunteer sector. Take the Firefighter and EMS Responder Behavioral Health Survey, so your insights can be used to shape the next National Safety Culture Change Initiative for the Firefighter and EMS Responder Behavioral Health Report. Your contribution will guide future organizational designs that tackle workplace stress, work-life balance, peer support interventions, stigma and the prevailing culture. This is your chance to effect meaningful change in your field. Take the survey.

The What Firefighters Want in 2023 state-of-the-industry survey explored a variety of topics – staffing challenges, work-related stress and the expanding scope of duties required of firefighters. Connected to each of these issues is the impact of the job on members’ behavioral health.

Survey respondents were given a list of behavioral health programs and activities made available to them by their fire department – peer support, family counseling, therapy animals, amid several other options. Of our volunteer respondents, 17% indicated that their fire departments offer none of the programs and activities.

Survey respondents were then given the opportunity to share their free-text responses about how their department could better support their behavioral health. Upon careful analysis, three primary themes emerged in the responses.

1. More emotional and mental health services

It will come as no surprise that the common keyword among responses is simply “More!” Volunteers said their departments should integrate services that support their mental health, such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), a work-based intervention program designed to assist employees in resolving personal problems that might adversely impact their work performance, health and wellbeing.

Another frequently suggested improvement was the integration of outside professional counselors. Mental health providers in the community can provide an invaluable resource for members to safely express their concerns, stresses and any personal issues they might be facing. Removing it one more step beyond the department can allow members to feel more confident that their concerns will remain anonymous and not spread through the department.

The respondents also proposed the development of a peer support team or access to another department’s peer support team. The shared experiences and understanding of the unique pressures of the job make these teams especially effective in providing support.

In addition, the incorporation of therapy dogs was another popular suggestion. These specially trained animals are known for their ability to reduce stress and provide comfort, making them a valuable inclusion in a comprehensive behavioral health program.

2. Increased education to help reduce stigma

The second common response was all about recognizing that behavioral health is a real issue. They felt that there’s a need to talk about the stress of the job more openly and frequently in their department.

Many firefighters flagged a stigma or negative feeling attached to talking about mental health. This can make it hard for someone who’s dealing with stress or other mental health problems to speak up and ask for help. They’re saying, “Hey, we need to cut this out and be more educated on recognizing red flags and less critical of people who use these services.”

One way to help reduce this stigma is through education. The firefighters suggested that their departments could provide more information and training about behavioral health not only to line staff but to supervisors and leadership as well. This could include things like what signs to look for if someone is struggling, how to approach a colleague about their mental health, or where to find resources for help. Basically, they’re asking for a safe space where they can learn more about these issues and how to deal with them.

By acknowledging that behavioral health is a real concern, talking about it more, reducing the stigma, and providing education, departments can create a more understanding and supportive environment. This would make it easier for members to ask for help when they need it – and support their colleagues too.

3. Increased staffing

The third common thread among responses was the need for increased staffing. Many respondents indicated that they often feel a lot of pressure to respond to calls because they’re not sure if there will be enough people to handle the job without them. This worry about staffing can make it hard for volunteer firefighters to take a step back when they need to focus on their own mental health.

Several firefighters expressed a desire to “turn it off” sometimes. They’re not talking about not caring or not doing their job. They’re talking about being able to take a break without feeling guilty or worried. To be able to recharge, to spend time with their loved ones, or to just not be ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Organizational focus on recruitment, shift scheduling and staffing could help support all members’ behavioral health. With more people on the team, the workload would be spread out more evenly. This could reduce the pressure on individual firefighters and make it easier for them to take the breaks they need without feeling guilty. They know that if they’re stressed and worried all the time, they can’t do their best work. They need these changes so they can take care of their own health and be in the best position to do their work of taking care of others.

Time to step up

Many of the volunteer firefighters want a more comprehensive and thoughtful approach to behavioral health to help them handle the physical, mental and emotional stress of their jobs. In fact, many just want something – “Anything!” as one respondent said.

Bottom line: Volunteers want more mental health support; a shift in the culture of their departments, so behavioral health can be talked about openly and without judgment; and more people on the team to share the workload relieve the pressure that can compromise overall health and wellness.

Leaders, how will you step up to meet the needs of your members?

Dr. Rachelle Zemlok is a licensed clinical psychologist in California, specializing in work with first responder families. She serves as the strategic wellness director at Lexipol, supporting the content and strategy related to first responder mental health and wellness, with a special focus on supporting spouses and family members through the Cordico Wellness App. Prior to joining Lexipol, Zemlok founded First Responder Family Psychology, which provides culturally competent therapy to first responders and their family members. She is the author of “The Firefighter Family Academy: A Guide to Educate & Prepare Spouses for the Career Ahead.” For more information on Dr. Zemlok or to connect with her please visit her website.