Why firefighters need to practice self-care before caring for others
Take note of the stress firefighting takes on your body and wellbeing, and address mental health by taking action to reduce stress
By Lieutenant Brad Bouchillon, Statesboro (GA) Fire Department
Can you name one machine that doesn’t require maintenance? I can’t. There might be one (I’m a firefighter, not a machinist), but for the most part, all the equipment we operate requires regular maintenance. Fire apparatus requires constant upkeep ranging from oil changes and tire rotation to pump service testing and windshield wiper replacement. Firefighters wouldn’t ignore servicing their turnout gear or completing an annual fit test to ensure their SCBA mask is sealing properly. However, the one machine that gets overlooked the most is the one reading this article.
The human body is indeed a machine that must be maintained. For good physical health, we must maintain good hygiene standards, abide by recommended dietary and exercise stipulations, and have annual physical check-ups to make sure everything is running the way it should.
Most people try to follow these physical standards (some better than others), but the area that many of us fall short is maintaining our psychological and mental health.
What is self-care?
Self-care is more than just brushing our teeth twice a day and getting in a workout. Self-care is about addressing our mental health, taking note of our stress levels and the toll it takes on our body, and taking action to address our stress. In the public safety field, we spend so much time and energy trying to help others that we so easily overlook helping ourselves.
Engaging in self-care is a personal preference aimed at doing something that relieves your stress. For many, exercise provides that release; exercise has proven to increase happiness and relieve stress through the release of endorphins. For others, it may be taking time for a favorite hobby such as fishing, hiking or art.
Do what makes you happy
Whatever your passion is, you have to maintain it in order to keep yourself happy. Many of us get caught up trying to please others, putting everything we have into our careers, or simply tackling life so hard that we become overwhelmed and – despite achieving important things such as a house, family, and steady job – we end up not actually being happy.
I know this from first-hand experience. At one point I was going to school full-time, working at the fire department full-time, working a part-time job, co-raising a little boy, and going through EMT school. During this time, I never stopped to take time for myself. I put every ounce of energy into succeeding at all of these things. When I finally finished my bachelor’s degree and EMT school, I realized just how overwhelmed I had been. My wife’s response was simple. She said I needed to go fishing more. Who is going to argue with that?
Taking time for myself and doing some of the things I love has made a huge difference in my life. Of course, finishing school was a major weight off my shoulders, but nothing has made a bigger difference than taking the time to decompress while on the water. While I still have everyday life stressors such as bills, car issues, and work stress, I have learned to better handle my stress by focusing on my self-care.
What’s the science behind self-care?
According to Harvard Medical School and the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, there is clear evidence that myocardial infarction, stroke, depression, anxiety, and even some disease-prone immune processes, including pro-inflammation, are all common disease denominators that are critically associated with stress.
What this all means is preventative care is critical to your overall health. Before you start a tough workout, don’t you take the time to stretch and warm-up first? If you want to avoid catching a cold, don’t you wash your hands appropriately and avoid being around others who are sick? We all know preventative measures help us avoid injuries and illness, so why don’t we take the time to address what is causing us stress? Although stress is not always preventable, we can all learn how to better manage our stress so it doesn’t cause adverse health effects.
Addressing burnout and suicide rates
One common term we hear in public safety is “burnout.” This is a result of a lack of self-care. Everyone has ups and downs in their jobs, but burnout occurs from continually bottling up stress and not caring for one’s self.
Just like a fire, burnout and the consequences from high levels of stress can get out of control. On average, 100 firefighters die each year in the line of duty. The majority of these deaths are from cardiac arrest, which is one reason there’s such an emphasis on physical health standards.
However, did you know that just as many firefighters and EMTs die from suicide each year? Last year, the Firefighter’s Behavioral Health Alliance validated and reported 103 completed suicides (86 firefighters and 17 EMTs). Why does there continue to be such little discussion about mental health issues and high levels of stress that often contribute to suicide
The staggering number of suicides, which are likely underreported and do not include suicide attempts, should make everyone in the fire service reflect on what they’re doing to take care of themselves.
Whether it’s engaging in an outdoor activity, reinvigorating your artistic creativity, or simply taking five minutes each day to sit in a quiet room undisturbed and focus on your breathing, don’t neglect self-care. It’s the ongoing maintenance you need to take care of yourself so you can take care of others.
About the author
Brad Bouchillon has been working for the City of Statesboro Fire Department for 10 years full-time and has held the rank of lieutenant for 4 years. He has also worked as a lifeguard for Tybee Island Ocean Rescue and as an EMT part-time for Screven County EMS. Brad holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology with a specialization in Crisis Counseling. He is also starting his Master’s of Arts program in Human Services Counseling with a Crisis Response and Trauma Cognate. He is married to his wife Megan of 5 years and they have a one-year-old son. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu. To receive more articles like this in your inbox, please sign up for In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.