EMMITSBURG, MD – When one mentions mental health issues, the image that typically comes to mind is a homeless person mumbling to themselves.
And, while people feel comfortable about sharing information about other illnesses such as cancer and heart problems, they stay silent when it comes to depression or their mental health.
Talking about issues regarding the psyche makes people uncomfortable, but it’s something that needs to come to the forefront in fire and EMS stations across the country.
Since firefighters are perceived as strong individuals, they are less likely to ask for help even if they desperately need it, Dr. Richard Gist told people who participated in a conference this past weekend in Emmitsburg.
The audience – fire officials, psychologists and responders – sat silently as Janet Wilmoth, associate publisher of Fire Chief, stepped to the podium.
She wasn’t there to discuss social media issues or to instruct people how to promote their fire departments. She was there to share. She said it was time to break the silence.
Wilmoth’s voice was steady as she glanced away from her notes and into the audience to tell them that she suffers from depression.
“It’s time to break the silence…”
She spoke of the brotherhood/sisterhood in the fire service, but questioned what it really means.
“Many are reluctant to ask: ‘Are you OK ?’
What they don’t realize, she said, is that they may make a difference. Taking the time to talk with someone when they don’t seem to be the same or a little off can save their life.
People suffering from mental illnesses live productive lives and are successful. They can be chiefs.
“The stigma of mental health can no longer to tolerated in the fire service,” she said adding that people should never fear seeking help.
Dr. Kim Van Orden, involved in suicide research at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, pointed out what George Eastman wrote in his note: “My work is done. Why Wait?”
She pointed to research and statistics. “Suicide is not only a clinical problem. It is a significant public health problem…Social connectedness is key to suicide prevention.”
Although suicide is the tenth leading cause of death, it’s an under studied issue.
The majority of those suffering from PTSD don’t get treatment for a number of reasons. They often fear documentation of their visit will hurt their chances of promotion or their colleagues will find out.
That’s why confidentiality is so essential throughout the process, explained Dr. Patricia Watson with the National Center for PTSD.
She added that responders often prefer peer interaction as opposed to formal interventions. But, some must be referred for professional assistance.
Watson added that it’s imperative that everyone know the signs and symptoms of depression. Seeing that someone who is usually outgoing suddenly become subdued shouldn’t be overlooked.
Those attending the conference agreed that screening for potential mental health issues could be included during a firefighter’s annual physical.
The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation has been tackling the issue of mental health fitness, and offers training on various topics.