Emergency service PTSD isn’t always incident-specific.Tweet
It takes a different breed of person to be a volunteer firefighter. The time commitment in non-emergency operations alone is tremendous. In fact, responding to calls makes up a very small percentage of one’s volunteer time.
Sadly, it is this small window of the hours logged that can have the most detrimental impact on a firefighter’s wellbeing. Of course, there are the obvious physical dangers in firefighting. Running into a burning building is a serious business. Even though I was well aware of the potential physical danger, I was oblivious to the silent injury rarely discussed: the mental injuries I call emergency-service PTSD.
So, what is this not-so-well-known injury? Well, whether acknowledged or not, some firefighters are impacted by a debilitating injury known as Post Traumatic-Stress disorder (PTSD). A tragic consequence of helping one’s community. Unfortunately, for some, it can end up being their ultimate sacrifice.
It’s quite understandable. After all, we see things that no human should ever have to see. With that said, someone has to step forward, right?. All these brave souls can hope for is that they get to the end of their years of service relatively unscathed. For those who are not so lucky, It can be heartbreaking, mind-numbing and something that keeps one up at night.
Great podcast recommendation: Bunker Gear For The Brain
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I am by no means an expert on trauma and PTSD, but I live it every day. What I can tell is, my path to it was more than incident-specific. I believe that there may be room to include emergency-service PTSD in a category that reflects the damage inflicted by or being witness to multiple critical incidents. Exposure over an extended period of time doesn’t seem to fit the criteria the DSM-5 Diagnostic and Statistics Manual is looking for.
The American Psychiatric Association defines post-traumatic stress disorder(PTSD) as a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist attack, war/combat, rape or other personal violent assaults.
Because EMS workers tend to have prolonged and repetitive exposure, the notion that “a” single traumatic event is a must when diagnosing PTSD, may not do these brave souls justice. In fact, it may leave a portion of the traumatized undiagnosed because it may be hard to discern that one particular incident.
From my own experience, those accumulated scenes can play out in nightmares that are not incident-specific and are not recalled with any real regularity. Sometimes I awake feeling like I just relived a fire-service memory in real life. I can’t recall the dream, but I know the numbing angst of PTSD well.
Recently, I have learned that I am not the only firefighter who is haunted by their traumatic experiences in this way. Other firefighters have told me that they have similar experiences. Many describe their symptoms as accumulative and can not nail it down to just one event.
They also report creating emergencies in their heads as they navigate throughout their day. For example, speeders on the highway tend to piss us off. Many EMS workers hate to see people speed because they are well aware of the consequences of this behaviour. All they can think about is the potential situation the speeder is putting them in. “Jerk is going to kill someone, and I’m going to be forced to help.”
I truly believe that emergency-service PTSD could be a subcategory of the original definition. We relive our most horrific incidents, whether directly or indirectly (the speeder scenario). In other words, we don’t suffer from “a” specific trauma. In fact, we dream and replay many incidents we tried to mitigate. These incidents can impact us, sometimes moment by moment. My way of coping? Run like hell. I mean, if the mental-health profession struggles with its diagnostic criteria, how can we be helped?
Finally, I want to take the time to thank everyone in the emergency-service community who risk their mental health with every call to action. From firefighters to paramedics, to police and dispatchers, nurses and doctors….. Thank you!
if you are suffering from PTSD or another mental illness, 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