Exclusive: The stress of firefighting with Fire-Dex

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Lauren Burke DeVere, President, Fire-Dex talks about the impact of firefighting on mental health

The physical dangers of working in fire service are well known. Fewer people, however, are aware of the psychological risks that come with the job.

Fear, stress, anxiety, depression—firefighters commonly experience a range of negative emotions when performing their duties. The intensity of traumatic events and the constant threat of danger can leave even the most veteran emergency responders feeling vulnerable. Understanding how to achieve and maintain good mental health is therefore essential for continued safety and long-term success in their careers.

Yet the topic of mental health is often swept up in the commotion of station life and quickly forgotten about. At Fire-Dex we manufacture head-to-toe turnout gear for fire departments and have become very aware of the mental health issues affecting firefighters.

Recognising the symptoms

The first step toward mental health preventive care is learning to recognise both physical and psychological symptoms. It is not uncommon for physical symptoms of poor mental health—fatigue, headaches, insomnia, digestive problems—to manifest themselves.

Psychological symptoms of deteriorating mental health may include difficulty concentrating, negative thinking, an inability to enjoy activities, difficulty connecting with colleagues, family and friends, and/or an overall feeling of being overwhelmed. If a firefighter notices that they are experiencing any of these symptoms, or that a fellow firefighter is struggling, they should not hesitate to reach out to a friend or counselor, or to gently open the door to a conversation as a concerned party.

PTSD is real, and it is a real problem for firefighters. About 20% of fire service professionals meet the criteria for PTSD at some point during their career according to a Journal of Occupational Health and Psychology study. To put this in perspective, less than 7% of the general population will experience PTSD over the course of a lifetime. It is important to stay mindful of the fact that one in five firefighters is likely to deal with the effects of PTSD at some point, which can manifest in different ways, some being more subtle than others.

Rest, relaxation and reflection

Self-care is important, and while it may seem obvious, all firefighters should permit themselves the necessary time to unwind. This may include relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation, physical activities or exercise, getting enough sleep as well as maintaining a healthy diet. It can also help to develop and maintain a strong social support system; firefighters need to build relationships with fellow firefighters and friends both inside and outside of their organisation.

In conversation with fire service professionals, it has occurred to me that the personal problems these heroes face can seem insignificant compared to any number of disasters, emergency situations or other traumatic events they have experienced. Acknowledging that one’s own struggles and needs are both authentic and deserving is not an easy step. Allowing time to process these feelings can do just as much to put the mind and body at ease as rest and relaxation.

The power of words

It is also notable that good mental health is closely associated with healthy sleeping habits. Sleep itself is a form of self-care that can help to relieve mismanaged stress and anxiety that tends to build up during the day. Often, it is not until a person has managed to relax in a peaceful setting that these feelings begin to subside.

Studies on college campuses, in prisons and in rest homes, for instance, have found that journaling about negative events is an incredible way to process them. It is easy to be intimidated by the thought, or to think that one must write a lot in order to benefit; however, the simple act of repeating even one line over and over—of simply committing the thought to paper—can be therapeutic.

Or for those outright opposed to the pen, a peer support group can make it much easier to talk about the difficulties of PTSD. Many departments have formed their own support groups led by veteran firefighters. Breaking through the stigma of mental health is the biggest barrier to seeking out this type of assistance.

A study published in Psychiatric Services indicated that 58% of participants reported stigma-related barriers when seeking help for suicidal thoughts during their firefighting careers. Firefighters with fewer years of service were also less likely to access treatment than those with more years, which underscores the importance of educating young professionals, especially, to the effects of depression and PTSD.

When enough is enough

When the symptoms of poor mental health become too much to handle, seeking professional help is always the best course of action. Finding the right professional is essential; it is important that they not only have experience dealing with firefighters, but also that they are available in a timely manner as the circumstances of a career in fire service can change quite suddenly.

Feeling comfortable with this person is also important as it makes the process of sharing one’s inner thoughts and feelings more bearable. If a firefighter feels they are not connecting with their therapist, they should not hesitate to look for a different one.

Mental health is an important issue, and it is essential to understand how to treat and prevent further physical and psychological issues. Recognising the symptoms, establishing a routine of self-care and speaking up when problems persist are all critical steps to maintaining good mental health.

For those seeking more information, organisations such as the Firefighter’s Support Alliance and the International Association of Fire Fighters through its Behavioral Health Program offer a variety of education programs and training sessions that can help individuals identify their problem areas and equip them with the skills to better manage stress and anxiety.

A career in fire services can be incredibly rewarding, but with this profession comes risks, both physical and psychological. Caring for mental health and well-being is key to ensuring that firefighters stay safe, happy and successful in their roles.

This article was originally published in the March edition of IFSJ. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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