Brave. Heroic. Strong. These words define a firefighter. Inhuman. Immortal. Immune. These words, however, don’t.
Firefighters are some of the most courageous men and women imaginable, but each and every day, but they’re also at an extremely high risk of PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD can have such an impact on firefighters — and, in turn, those around them — that it can become emotionally, mentally and physically crippling. In this article, we’ll discuss PTSD, its warning signs and what you can do if you or someone you know is a firefighter or public safety officer who may be suffering.
In the line of fire
The Mayo Clinic defines Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as, “a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event.” Anxiety, which is often associated with PTSD, can be caused by any kind of trauma, such as an accident, personal injury, being the victim of a crime or experiencing war.
Obviously (and literally), firefighters are in the line of fire — day in, day out. It’s their job to be surrounded by what most of us consider “terrifying events” — that’s essentially what being a firefighter entails. And that’s exactly why PTSD has such a common occurrence in this field, exemplified in some statistics below.
Many firefighters who suffer from PTSD develop family and work problems because of the symptoms, including:
Treatment Solutions’ Senior Vice President of Business Development and retired firefighter Mike Blackburn told us about a fellow firefighter who eventually left the unit completely, due to PTSD. Drug and alcohol abuse is also a common result, which can have a significantly negative impact on health, relationships, job performance and beyond.
Breaking the stigma
Drug addicts and alcoholics are often too ashamed of their addictions to ask for help — and the same goes for those with mental illness disorders. Many firefighters and public safety officers battling PTSD hide their affliction, because they’re the ones who are supposed to be the strongest and most unbreakable.
Staying silent is the worst way to go, and only leads to further mental and physical health issues. After Jack Slavinski, Philadelphia firefighter and former marine whose suicide made headlines last year, his wife and colleagues spoke out, saying they believed Jack had suffered with PTSD for seven years. ABC News quoted Francine Roberts, a New Jersey-based clinical psychologist who treats firefighters and police officers. “‘It’s considered a weakness to … ask for help…’ She accommodates her patients’ desire for absolute confidentiality by seeing them in an office with a private parking lot and rear entrance.”
We want to open up the lines of communication and spread not only the awareness surrounding PTSD, but also the hope for a solution. Finding a solid support system that works as a reassuring presence and discussing PTSD coping strategies, along with utilizing the CISM teams, are wonderful tools in staving off the risks.
Mike Blackburn said, “The CISM teams are the best service available, along with strong leadership from the fire service making sure their troops get what they need when these tragic incidents occur. Immediate help at the time of the incident is imperative, and following up at the second meeting should be mandated so that team members can watch for those that may be seriously affected.”
In our next installment, we’ll discuss CIS (or Critical Incident Stress), which, unlike PTSD, is a shorter-term affliction that affects many firefighters, and CISM (or Clinical Incident Stress Management) teams and how their support can minimize the likelihood of PTSD.
This article was written by Amy Tratenberg
Joining the Treatment Solutions family in 2012, Amy is excited to use her extensive writing skills to reach people in need of empowerment. She's written for Tallahassee Magazine, Time Out New York, Ology.com, Pet Business Magazine, Celebrity Hairstyles, Coed Media, Daily Horoscope.com and many more digital and print publications. Amy is grateful to be involved with Treatment Solutions and American Addiction Centers, organizations that truly makes a difference.