As a young firefighter-paramedic, there were many things to love about my career. There was camaraderie and teamwork. When emergencies arose, I was surrounded by peers who cared. And we felt well supported by the community we served.
Twenty-eight years ago, I didn’t know how things would end for some of my second family. I rarely thought about my own mortality or that of my teammates. If I did, it was a fleeting thought about a fire or a building collapse or an explosion, all within the context of taking justifiable risks to save another human being.
I had never heard of occupational stress injury and had limited knowledge of post-traumatic stress injury. Despite how logical the risk may seem today, we didn’t understand the negative effects of major traumatic events or the cumulative trauma on our mental health and wellness.
That naïveté is gone. Writing this, I can name 14 first-responder friends and colleagues I have lost to suicide. I know there are more, but there is a limit to dwelling on such things. I would never have predicted that most of the colleagues closest to me who I have lost would take their own lives.
Despite that tragic backdrop, there are incredible changes taking place. Driven by champions from within our ranks, and helped by experts from the mental-health field, first-responders are quickly developing a better understanding of mental-health injuries and how to protect ourselves and each other.
We have finally acknowledged the problem. In the first decade of my career, I do not recall a single work conversation specifically about mental health, although in our tight-knit team we used humour and empathy and informal debriefings to help sort things out after a bad call. Today, it is normal for me to be a part of meaningful discussions about mental health in Vancouver’s fire halls and training classrooms. Slowly, the stigma is dissipating.
Leaders are key. A public safety leader who doesn’t understand mental-health strategies and best practices isn’t a complete leader. But more than that, leaders need to walk the walk, demonstrating self-care, using (and talking about using) available mental-health resources, and leading the conversation against stigma. If you are a leader in our industry reading this, and your organization’s strategic and business plans don’t include a focus on staff mental health and wellness, then your priorities are wrong.
True resilience requires comprehensive education and training. Organizations need anti-stigma campaigns to help create a safe space for our people to talk. Mental-health resilience and awareness programs give first-responders tools to deal proactively with hard things, and help them recognize signs and symptoms of trauma in themselves and their peers. Best practice programs should extend to loved ones and friends, to help them effectively support first-responders at home.