By: Brandon Evans, Firefighter and founder of Fire to Light
In the world of firefighting, strength, bravery, and resilience are qualities that define these everyday heroes. However, there’s an aspect of their lives that has often remained in the shadows: mental health. For many firefighters, acknowledging mental health challenges can be daunting. It’s not uncommon to hear them say, “But there’s nothing wrong with me.”
The world of firefighters and mental health hasn’t always seen eye to eye. Rooted in tradition, pride, and an unwavering commitment to helping others, firefighters have long kept their struggles with trauma hidden. There are various reasons behind this silence, and one of them is the lack of role models who have openly discussed these issues. Additionally, the language surrounding mental health has contributed to the stigma. For years, having “mental health issues” often implied that something was inherently wrong with an individual, potentially leading to institutionalization. Although this perception has evolved, these historical truths continue to cast a shadow, adding to the stigmatization of mental health within the fire service.
Introduction of mental health
The way “mental health” has been introduced to firefighters, with good intentions from external sources like psychologists and administration, has too often left firefighters feeling as though there is something inherently wrong with them. Many times, the traumatic incidents they witness don’t immediately impact them negatively. Moreover, there’s often nothing wrong with the firefighters themselves. The challenge with mental health in the fire service is that mental health services are primarily reactive, offering support only after a firefighter experiences psychological issues like PTSD or a psychological injury. Mental health support is rarely seen as a tool for enhancing performance and readiness.
The prevailing view of mental health remains predominantly negative, rather than being recognized as an integral part of the human experience, encompassing both positive and challenging aspects.
It was through my own experience that a shift in perspective occurred. After going through a mental health crisis fueled by trauma, financial loss, self-blame and judgment, I found myself yelling a swearing at my four-year-old – I needed help. In one moment, there was nothing wrong with me, yet in another, I just couldn’t hold my shit together. I reflected on my life throughout my healing and understood why I was acting this way towards my children. It was the preparatory work of the last 15 years doing fitness, meditation and breathwork, and the willingness to ask for help. The first ask was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and coincidentally, one of the best.
Trauma stacks up and builds and builds, the best part, however, is doing small acts of kindness towards one’s self.
Firefighters are hailed as heroes, dedicated to serving their communities, often without contemplating the possibility that they might need help themselves someday. Beneath the surface, there’s a prevailing fear among firefighters that delving too deep into their trauma might unearth something fundamentally wrong with them. Moreover, there’s a perception that therapists assume there’s something wrong with firefighters, which doesn’t foster trust.
The truth is, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with firefighters. However, the daily exposure to trauma can undeniably impact their lives. If this trauma begins to hinder their performance in various life areas, isn’t it crucial to recognize it and take action?
Firefighters are not alone in their mental health journeys. It’s time to break the silence, erase the stigma, and redefine mental health in the fire service. By acknowledging that mental health is an integral part of being human and seeking support when needed, firefighters can continue to serve as heroes while also taking care of their own well-being. The trauma they face every day doesn’t define them, but addressing it can empower them to perform at their best in all aspects of life.
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