When it came to information on PTSD in Firefighting, or even just learning about Firefighting, alone, I was much later in discovering the facts than I meant to be. It’s funny…when you deal with PTSD, Military always comes to mind, followed by Law Enforcement. Sometimes, it almost seemed that the Firefighters just kept the house from burning down so I could learn about and deal with the needs of the prior two groups. But here’s the deal…
More recently I have been able to talk to firefighters, and understand the details of their work and their stresses. Firefighters’ work is part science, part bravery. I have heard them discuss a lot about fitness, concentration, and selfless dedication in many ways, even when their personal lives are not going well. In this sense, they are like the Military and Law Enforcement Officers. There are similarities.
The differences begin with no use of deadly force, and the use of tools, but no weapons, to do their work. This group of people is all about saving lives. How is it, then, that they end up in the same stress categories, and with some of the same experiences, as all the rest? How can it be that these lifesavers feel alone and often find themselves facing consequences of their dedication, including suicide?
When a call goes bad, our Firefighters are in personal danger, or see fellow Firefighters or civilians being/having been injured or killed. There are times when a lifetime of training, safe practices and the greatest effort is not enough. That feels like a failure on some level. Sometimes, reality does not get to play here.
Survivor’s guilt, the best of the “why am I still here?” games, plays a person’s success at surviving against him/her. Instead of being thankful to still be alive, a comparison of worthiness takes place, with the survivor determining that there is something wrong with the outcome. While there is something in a way wrong and also painful about losing someone, there is nothing wrong with the survival itself. Life did not choose the wrong person. Life did not choose at all.
Major stressors such as these life and death incidents that can happen daily, along with all the same everyday stressors the rest of us have in our lives, combine to take away peace and allow PTSD easier access to a Firefighter’s psyche, causing pain, doubts, anger, and more that are in direct conflict with the love of the job. Without processing these thoughts and incidents, the pressure builds, often silently, and can cause illness, damaging habits, or even death/suicide. Stigma, too, often blocks the very routes to help that can be lifesaving. It is puzzling as to why the very people who seem to care so much about each other actually get in the way of a co-worker and friend attempting to get help. The much-needed help is every bit as important in lifesaving as are safety practices on the job.
In appreciation of the work our firefighters do, and in honor of the sacrifices each Firefighter makes on the job through his/her career, all of us, Firefighters and civilians, need to work harder and work together to encourage those who have stress and PTSD to get the help they need. It is critical that we provide them with the safety that understanding and compassion bring, so that they heal and continue on with their lives. That is the very least we can do to help.
Firefighters, many thanks to all of you for doing the work of your chosen profession/your “calling”, and standing strong, even while in pain and overlooked. Thank you, also, to those who have taught me what it means to do your job. I see you, and better understand what you deal with on a daily basis, on and off duty. Know that you are appreciated, and know, also, that when times get difficult for you, I/we want to be there to help, as you are there for us. If for some reason I/we don’t automatically recognize the times when you need help, realize that if you let me and others know, I/we will take the time to be there. You are worth it…and you are not alone…