For fifteen years of my life, I had the great honour of being part of the volunteer fire service family. I, like most people who sign up, caught the fire service fever. As a result, it got into my blood and still runs through my veins to this day.
As far as I am concerned, there is no greater service one can be a part of in terms of making a difference in one’s community. The sacrifice one must make to volunteer their time is tremendous. It requires hours of training and fundraising and that’s just a drop in the bucket. Despite the hours and hours of service time I logged, I loved each and every second of it, good times and bad. If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter, contact your local fire department for an application. A basic look at requirements here: Volunteer firefighter requirements.
Being a firefighter has taught me so much, lessons that have been transferable to other parts of my life. One of the most valuable lessons being that you need to take care of what’s in front of you regardless of its challenge. The tragic events that often come with signing up leave you little choice but to simply get it done, hunger, sleep, the need to use the bathroom be damned. Nonetheless, it completely satisfied my love for helping others.
Despite my love for the service, years and years of mentally and physically ingesting the tragedies of others has ended up being my last and most personal sacrifice as a firefighter. I was recently diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD. Sadly, I am no longer an active member because of this and debilitating illness.
What adds salt to the wounds of my mental illness is the feeling that I have been unintentionally left out in the cold by those who claimed that the fire department members are all one big “family”. I mean no disrespect, many facets of society have not yet made the connection that PTSD and mental illnesses as a whole are real, bona fide illnesses. Its symptoms are many and produce constant pain. I often refer to this as chronic mental pain.
So, I have felt and continue to feel the impact of stigma on firefighters to this day. I find I’m continuously asking myself; why is there a pervasive silence when it comes to talking about PTSD firefighter to a firefighter? Well, it always felt to me like people wanted to reach out, wanted to make sense of what they were experiencing but really didn’t know-how. Traumatic incidents by their very nature are difficult to make sense of, the brain works hard to make puzzle pieces fit in a puzzle they were not designed for. How do you even begin to talk about that? Where does one start?
I really feel like the stigma is fuelled by the lack of knowledge and trained people on-site to deal with PTSD’s complexities. Sure, there are debriefings sometimes but few compared to the frequency of alarms and some calls go unrecognized as a critical incident. How does a department recognize that trauma impacts people differently? A seemingly small incident may be enough to cause serious mental damage to one but not another. Well, in short, we need trained members who have the skill sets to be able to recognize the signs that someone is in trouble. This training should be made as much a priority as SCBA training and fall under the direction of the department safety officer. Trained personal will fill in the gap when a crisis debriefing team is not necessary for the majority of members. Although people are silent now, it may break the ice to discuss strategies to implement such a training program.
Because we are helpers and because we are problems solvers, the tendency is to try to fix someone with whatever we have in a vocabulary. We often try to help our brothers and sisters by saying things that range from; “Just stop thinking about it”, to “that’s what you signed up for.” Sometimes it starts out with; “You Know what I do?” or “Let’s go get a beer.” None of these are very helpful for someone who is struggling; people just want to be heard and supported. They want to be supported by being checked in regularly, hand them a number to a crisis counsellor, that kind of thing. It’s not our job to fix our members but it is our responsibility to recognize a problem and direct them to the right resources.
Need help? Not yet ready to venture outside? Start here: online-therapy.com
So, I feel that the impact of stigma on firefighters and PTSD has a lot to do with failure to recognize it and thus causing a failure to act. When our members, those brave women and men who sign up and risk their lives need our help, need something more than awkward silence and misplace but well-intentioned advice. They need to be given the tools to be supported by professionally facilitated peer groups, frequent education on the subject and individual therapies. After all, they are sacrificing a huge chunk of their personal lives, lets not abandoned them, shame them or think they are weak. We are in the business of saving lives and minimizing human suffering, yet we fail to see that our commitment to our communities is putting our own lives in jeopardy, our biggest emergency is that of our own and for some of us, It is our final alarm.
If you are suffering from PTSD, please reach out. I thank you for your service and you are still worthy and mean something. I believe in you!
If you are struggling please go here: Crisis Services Canada