Fires are a common phenomenon in the US and even worldwide. Hence, the need for ample fire departments to handle such situations is also vast. Data shows that there were at least 29,452 fire departments in the US in 2020.
Firefighters are the bloodline of these departments. They’re strong, courageous, and often have a deep commitment to helping others. But what happens when the job itself becomes too much? Firefighting is one of the most stressful professions and can take a toll on firefighters’ mental health.
The bravery paradox
Firefighters are courageous people. They have a unique mental toughness that allows them to perform at their best under pressure and in stressful situations. However, this does not mean that firefighters are immune from mental health challenges and risk factors for PTSD.
The bravery paradox refers to the fact that firefighters often don’t seek professional psychological help. Most firefighters think that they should have a very positive mindset. They also think that they should be capable of handling tragic events, as they are a part of their job.
Hence, they silently suffer from trauma and job-related stress. The reason is that they fear being labelled weak or unfit for duty by their peers or supervisors. However, this bravery paradox can adversely impact firefighters’ mental health.
Unseen battles: common mental health challenges
The demands of the job can take a toll on firefighters’ mental health. Stress, depression, and anxiety are common among firefighters. Known as “the silent killer” because it’s not always visible to others, PTSD has a high prevalence rate. According to recent data, it affects around 8.6% of firefighters worldwide. The mean prevalence rate of PTSD among US firefighters is 12.3%. And that of depression is 18.7%.
As a way to cope with these challenges, firefighters usually rely on alcohol, which further leads to substance abuse. Reports suggest that at least 10% of firefighters may be using substances and alcohol.
Other challenges include sleep problems and eating disorders like binge eating or bulimia nervosa. Grief and loss are also common issues for many firefighters who witness tragic events like deaths on the scene or during training exercises. They may also experience grief when they lose colleagues who were friends or mentors to them.
Moreover, there are also lesser-known challenges. For example, firefighters who suffer injury or any disease because of their job can also face mental health problems. Consider the recent scenario where firefighters exposed to aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) are developing cancers.
Many studies have shown a link between AFFF exposure and cancers due to the per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) present in them. These are carcinogenic chemicals and many firefighters have already developed various cancers.
According to TorHoerman Law, these firefighters are filing AFFF lawsuits against the manufacturers. Around 6,000 individual lawsuits have been consolidated into multidistrict litigation (MDL). Being affected by cancer or other health conditions can take a toll on firefighters’ mental health.
For instance, cancers can cause a financial burden on firefighters. There are medical expenses, lost wages, etc. Moreover, the thought of developing cancer can itself impact their psychological well-being negatively. The AFFF lawsuit is a way of seeking financial compensation to help firefighters overcome the challenges that come with cancer.
The toll of trauma
The effects of trauma on firefighters are well documented and, unfortunately, common. Firefighters often face significant physical and emotional challenges in their line of duty, and exposure to traumatic events is a common aspect of their work. The toll of trauma on firefighters can manifest in various ways, affecting their mental health, relationships, and overall well-being. Here are some key aspects to consider:
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Firefighters are at risk of developing PTSD due to the nature of their work, which involves exposure to traumatic events. PTSD can lead to symptoms such as intrusive memories, nightmares, hyperarousal, and avoidance behaviours.
- Cumulative stress. The cumulative impact of witnessing distressing events over time can take a toll on firefighters. Even if they don’t develop full-blown PTSD, the stress of repeated exposure to trauma can lead to mental health issues.
- Critical incidents. Firefighters often encounter critical incidents that can have a profound emotional impact. These incidents may involve loss of life, severe injuries, or situations where they feel helpless. Critical incident stress debriefing and support services are crucial to help them process these experiences.
- Workplace culture. The culture within a fire department can influence how well firefighters cope with trauma. A supportive and understanding workplace culture that encourages open communication about mental health can contribute to resilience. Conversely, a culture that stigmatises seeking help may hinder firefighters from accessing the support they need.
- Relationship strain. The toll of trauma can extend to personal relationships. Firefighters may find it challenging to discuss their experiences with loved ones, and the emotional toll of the job can strain relationships.
A firefighter’s job is a stressful one, and it’s important to build resilience so that you can handle the stress. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity and recover from trauma.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your work, here are some ways you can build your resilience:
- Talk about what’s bothering you with someone who understands what it’s like being a firefighter. However, this person doesn’t necessarily need to be another firefighter. It can be anyone who cares about your well-being.
- Take time off from work if possible. This is especially true if things are happening in your life that make it difficult for you to focus on anything else. If this isn’t possible right now, try doing something relaxing like reading an interesting book or watching TV shows/movies related to firefighters. Anything that helps take some weight off of those shoulders will help give them some much-needed rest.
Support systems: a critical component
Support systems for firefighters’ mental health are crucial given the demanding and stressful nature of their work. Here are several key elements of support systems for firefighters’ mental health:
- Peer support programmes. Establish peer support programs where experienced firefighters can provide emotional support and share their coping strategies. Peer support fosters a sense of camaraderie and understanding among colleagues who have shared similar experiences.
- Access to counselling services. Ensure easy access to confidential counseling services, either through in-house resources or external mental health professionals. Make sure that firefighters feel comfortable seeking help without fear of judgement or stigma.
- Critical incident stress debriefing (CISD). Implement CISD programmes to address the emotional impact of critical incidents. These sessions provide a structured and supportive environment for firefighters to discuss their experiences and emotions.
- Work-life balance. Promote a healthy work-life balance by implementing reasonable work hours and scheduling practices. Adequate time off between shifts can help reduce burnout and provide firefighters with essential recovery time.
- Physical wellness programmes. Physical health is closely linked to mental well-being. Implement wellness programs that focus on fitness, nutrition, and overall health. Regular exercise has been shown to have positive effects on mental health and can be incorporated into daily routines.
- Education and awareness campaigns. Conduct educational campaigns to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues. Increase awareness about the importance of seeking help and the available resources for mental health support.
- Family support services. Recognise the impact of a firefighter’s job on their family and provide support services for spouses and children. Family support can contribute significantly to a firefighter’s overall well-being.
- Routine mental health checkups. Integrate routine mental health checkups into overall health assessments. Encourage proactive discussions about mental health during regular performance evaluations.
- Policy advocacy. Advocate for policies that prioritize the mental health of firefighters, including comprehensive mental health coverage in healthcare plans.
The benefits of having access to these different types of support systems include improved job performance and reduced stress levels. While there are many support systems available, there is a need for firefighters to step up and seek help. Available data shows that only 30% of firefighters received treatment for mental health conditions.
As we’ve seen, many factors can contribute to firefighters’ mental health. The good news is that there are also many ways to help protect against these risks and promote overall wellness. Firefighters need to be aware of the potential dangers they face and take steps to protect themselves from them. This includes building resilience through positive thinking, connecting with others through support networks, and getting enough sleep.
Ellen Diamond, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.