When we talk about mental health, we talk about how it affects people in everyday situations, but we don’t often talk about how it affects first responders to emergencies like firefighters, those who who respond to stressful or traumatic situations often more than once a day.
Firefighters carry much more weight on their shoulders than just their gear. They deal with everything from fires to car accidents, ice rescues, medical calls on a daily basis.
Some mental health issues they face are compassion fatigue, sleep deprivation – which can cause anxiety – impatience and restlessness that they take home with them, that can affect their home life.
“It slowly builds up on them. You can kind of think of it as like carrying a backpack and people are putting in a small rock one at a time,” said Rochester Fire Captain Brett Knapp. “You don’t really notice it at the time, it builds up and can be kind of a weight you’re carrying around.”
In recent years, firefighters have begun to realize that this is a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“Which is one of those things that when we first started hearing about it we thought, that’s not really us that’s for military people that are in combat overseas. But once we started getting some training on it and some education, we started to realize that some of the things we see at our work affect us emotionally similarly to the way people are affected when they are in combat situations,” said Captain Knapp. “And it has to do with being put in situations where you’re seeing human suffering, you’re seeing people injured, you’re seeing a lot of things that most people never see in your life, at all in their life, but we might see several times in one single day.”
“If we let it pile up we don’t talk about it, we don’t acknowledge it, we don’t recognize it, we don’t realize what’s going on in ourselves, it just continues to intensify and to worsen,” said Dr. Crystal Guyse, a Psychologist at Zumbro Valley Mental Health.
These are the people who help others during their most difficult times, and they are often exposed to traumatizing scenes and stressful situations on the job. Sometimes they’re not feeling well; they’re toughing out.
“We have to be the people that go out on the street, and be the strong people that are brave. If we show up on a scene and we’re not handling it well and panicking it’s not gonna help anybody,” said Captain Knapp.
“We have to be those tough-skinned individuals and,” said Austin FD firefighter Hans Gilbert. “We emergency services are the ones that people rely on to come to them in a time of need. And lots of times people do put on that you know, tough metal exterior personality.”
But putting on a tough face carries big risks.
Captain Knapp said firefighter suicides are on the rise. This past year, more firefighters died by suicide than in the line of duty. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, nearly 60 percent of adults with mental illness did not receive mental health services in the previous year.
Captain Knapp became interested in becoming a firefighter because of what happened on September 11, 2001.
“9/11 was just an event…a traumatic event on such a massive scale that even those of us who work on fire departments on a regular basis, and see a lot of things, even we can’t imagine what a lot of those responders at that scene,” he said. “So I’m sure they had intense, emotional reactions that day that I’m sure many are still dealing with.”
343 firefighters perished on September 11th. Rochester Fire Chief Greg Martin was a Fire Chief in Lansing, Michigan at the time. He led a department of about 250 people.
“What really hit home with me was if every firefighter on my department had been killed, I mean that’s how tremendous that impact was,” said Chief Martin. “And I think it gave us a new appreciation for safety, and I think it did lead to some positive changes in the fire service in terms of more national grant programs for equipment and training. So there was some positive things that came out of that but just a horrific loss for all of those first responders.”
Deeply distressing and often daily experiences can take a toll on firefighters. Dr. Guyse said there is still a stigma surrounding seeking treatment for mental health issues. But there’s no need to suffer in silence.
“The big challenge in the fire service is to convince people that it’s okay to reach out for that help. When you’re the ones providing the help, it can sometimes be hard to be the one that’s asking for help,” said Captain Knapp.
“There’s that stigma around mental health symptoms that almost makes it seems like somebody’s defective, versus if there’s a physical disorder like diabetes or a broken bone or something like that is perfectly acceptable to seek out treatment,” said Dr. Guyse. “Whereas with the mental health symptoms a lot of times there’s just that avoidance or not talking about it. That stigma blocks people from getting the help that they need.”
“One of the worst things you can do is head up to your room or kinda go into solitude and try to deal with it yourself. It helps to be able to talk it out. We’re our own kind of therapy group in that way. The comradery that we build over the years of working together helps a lot too,” said Rochester Fire Captain Brian Petersen.
“Being able to leave work at work is kind of an important thing that we all have to learn about. Some of the calls that we go on are something that’s very traumatic, not only for the parties involved but it’s stuff that we carry with us,” said Petersen. “And that’s something that we have to learn to separate.”
“One of the things that I always tell new firefighters is that, you know, I hired you as a firefighter, not as a superhero. And if you feel stress or you have an emotional reaction from an incident you shouldn’t think less of yourself, it just means you’re human,” said Chief Martin.
All firefighters we talked to said the job is extremely rewarding, as they they are able to go out and help people through a tough day.
And at the end of their day, they have each other to talk to and rely on.