The pressures of today’s world can lead to mental health issues in any individual. The death of a loved one, divorce and financial challenges are only some of the most obvious stressors that affect people’s coping mechanisms in today’s society.
Firefighters are a unique breed as they not only have to deal with the same issues as society in general, but also the fact that they are exposed to events that involve trauma, death and loss on a regular basis throughout their career. Being exposed to these events can have an effect on an individual over time and can compound significantly if they are not handled properly.
Unfortunately, fire service culture, which is built largely on the values of bravery and pride, prevents fire service members from asking for help when needed. Another significant barrier to firefighters receiving the proper treatment in these instances is that counselors provided through employee assistance and health programs often do not have an understanding of the fire service.
Occupational stress experienced by fire service members can lead to a condition known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a mental health condition that is commonly brought on by experiencing a traumatic or terrifying event. Signs and symptoms will normally surface within three months of an incident, but can take longer. It is brought on by a combination of:
- Life experiences
- Inherited temperament or personality and mental risks, and
- The process in which the brain regulates the release of chemicals and hormones when a person is stressed.
Research has also shown that certain factors increase the odds for developing PTSD. Most prevalent are:
- Intensity of the traumatic event
- Having experienced other traumatic events, and
- The lack of having a good support system in place.
PTSD also creates a higher risk factor for individuals developing additional mental health problems such as:
- Substance abuse
- Eating disorders
In addition, PTSD has been proven to contribute to other health-related issues such as cardiovascular disease, autoimmune deficiencies, chronic pain and muskoskeletal problems.
Symptoms of PTSD
The symptoms of PTSD can be quite extensive, but will fall into one of three categories: intrusive memories, avoidance or emotional numbing and anxiety and increased emotional arousal.
Intrusive memory symptoms include reliving the traumatic event through flashbacks or nightmares.
The second group is avoidance or emotional numbing. These symptoms are exhibited when the individual consciously avoids trying to think or talk about the event, discontinues activities/hobbies that were previously enjoyed, easily forgets things, has trouble concentrating and cannot maintain a close relationship with others.
Anxiety and increased emotional arousal symptoms involve the person being highly irritable, displaying outbursts of anger or other self-destructive behavior, suffering insomnia and hearing or seeing things that are not present.
All of these symptoms of PTSD can come and go, but can be triggered by any reminders of the stressful event that the person experienced.
Creating a Support System
Knowing what firefighters go through on a continual basis leads us to realize the importance of having the right measures in place for our firefighters. Prevention and early intervention are crucial in treating PTSD. As a chief, one of the best preventative measures is to create an organization that cares. This includes how each member treats one another, how the members treat the public, providing good training and tools, equipment and apparatus to perform our jobs and having solid systems in place when work must be performed (incident command system, operating guidelines, accountability, etc.).