May is Mental Health Awareness Month


Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Photo Courtesy of Landon Jensen

The COVID-19 pandemic has likely brought many changes to how you live your life, and with it uncertainty, altered daily routines, financial pressures and social isolation. You may worry about getting sick, how long the pandemic will last and what the future will bring. Information overload, rumors and misinformation can make your life feel out of control and make it unclear what to do.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, you may experience stress, anxiety, fear, sadness and loneliness. And mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression, can worsen. It’s important to learn self-care strategies and get the care you need to help you cope. It may require you seeking professional help.

With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, lets start with some tips on what to do when responding to medical calls or welfare checks where you suspect the person has a mental health issue. Remember that one out of five U.S. adults experience a mental illness at some point in their lives.

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 suicide and suicidal thoughts than non-firefighters. While suicide is the most devastating outcome of mental illness, there are a host of other, more common effects that many of our brothers and sisters live with every day. They include:

  • Anger, anxiety, aggressiveness
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Erratic or impulsive behavior
  • Substance abuse (including prescription drugs)

Why do firefighters experience 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.

While mental strain has always been part of a fire service career, some people believe certain factors are exacerbating the problem now. In some communities, budget cuts have led to sharp increases in call volumes. Nearly every department responds to far more medical calls than it used to. Since 9/11, too, many firefighters have seen military action prior to their firefighting careers. And sadly, in some firehouses we are spending less time talking and processing traumatic calls in a safe and supportive environment — and more time isolated, interacting with devices rather than with one another.

Unfortunately, mental health issues can strike anyone at any time. 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.

There is no quick fix in solving this growing problem once it is diagnosed, and getting to the diagnosis is even tougher. Many shy away from asking for help as we cling to the belief that mental health issues are more a sign of weakness in character than an illness of body.

But we can start by building awareness and opening up a dialogue. With a statistic like one-in-five suffering with some form of mental health issue, it’s a good bet someone in your organization needs help. It might even be you. If you feel need assistance, do not hesitate to reach out to a licensed, qualified mental health expert.

Firefighter Mental Health – It’s YOUR Responsibility

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.