Strengthening Firefighter Mental Health: It’s YOUR Responsibility!

Mental illness is common in the United States, ranging from mild to severe. Nearly one in five U.S. adults experience mental illness each year (46.6 million in 2017).

Ask yourself this question: How many members are in your department? Get the point?

Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and addictive behaviors are among the most common mental illnesses. While many of these have biological components, lifestyle plays a big role as well. As first responders, we face a lot of stress and it can take a mental toll. Some studies have shown that firefighters have a higher incidence of symptoms associated with mental illness, including:

  • Anger, irritability and aggressiveness
  • Anxiety
  • Post-traumatic stress
  • Depression
  • Sleep disorders
  • Substance abuse

Why do firefighters experience so many of these effects at higher rates than other professions? There’s no easy answer, because we’re all different. A firefighter might respond to calls for 25 years without having lasting emotional issues. Another firefighter might be permanently affected by a single horrible call, perhaps a multi-fatality house fire or car wreck involving children. Still others can’t point to a single incident but suffer from a build-up effect of countless calls in which they feel unable to help, but compelled to try. Many studies also indicate shift work is a contributing factor, upsetting our bodies’ natural rhythms in ways that have lasting physical and psychological effects.

Think again, for a minute, about your own department. Have you seen an increase in firefighters being out on leave for mental health? For you old-timers, does it seem like firefighters throw around words like “depressed,” “anxious” and “stress” way more often than they used to? This may actually be a good thing. While rates of mental illness and even suicide have been on the rise nationally, the increase may simply reflect a greater willingness to talk about and report the issues—rather than a sheer increase in rate of people suffering from them. The awareness around anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and stress has increased substantially, easing the taboo associated with seeking treatment and acknowledging the challenges we face.

But firefighters and fire departments face a challenge beyond just increasing awareness of mental illness. Our citizens depend on us to be ready to respond, 24/7. We must be ready to face traumatic scenes; to help people who are homeless, addicted and domestic violence victims; to respond to active shooter situations. So it’s important for each of us to make sure we not only take care of our physical health, but our mental health as well. We also need to look out for warning signs in our coworkers, family and friends. Untreated, these signs can lead to mental health crises or even suicide.

Fire department mental health programs are another critical part of the equation. Many departments offer some services, but the quality and comprehensiveness varies widely. According to the experts at Cordico (www.cordico.com), a company that creates wellness solutions for fire departments and other high-stress professions, firefighter wellness programs should address the following:

  • Accessibility. Traditional EAPs that don’t offer 24/7 help lines or immediately accessible resources may not serve the needs of firefighters who work nontraditional hours.
  • Confidentiality. One of the biggest reasons first responders don’t access mental health resources is their belief that department administration will be aware of it and that it can hurt their career or even force them onto light duty or medical leave. It’s critical that your department’s program guarantee confidentiality (it will likely take time to build firefighter trust that the services are, indeed, confidential).
  • Flexibility. One size doesn’t fit all. The mental health services you offer should reflect the culture and needs of your department. It’s also essential that you’re pointing firefighters to providers who are vetted and experienced in treating first responders.

With a statistic like one-in-five, it’s a good bet someone in your organization needs help, and many more will need help in the future. It might even be you. What are you doing to take a stand for firefighter mental health?

About Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Sam DiGiovanna is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as fire chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif.