HEALTHHave We Stalled Out at Awareness?

Have We Stalled Out at Awareness?

By: Keith Hanks

In a time where increased discussions are being had regarding mental health, trauma, PTSD, and the toll of the job, why does it feel like nothing is changing? 

Twenty years ago, the word PTSD was rarely spoken about in the firehouse. It was a term used only when referring to the military and combat, and even that was a new thing outside of the psychiatric community. There was no reliable data on firefighter suicides, depression, anxiety, addiction, or any of the other effects of trauma. No one was talking about what the job was doing to us emotionally and psychologically and how it was taking a toll on our family and personal lives.

A lot has changed in the last 7 to 10 years. Discussions have begun to be more common. Firefighters have started to acknowledge that the job changes us, and for a significant percentage, that change can be deadly. 

In the last 3 to 5 years, presentations and seminars on trauma and PTSD have taken place at conferences and other related events that previously never highlighted mental health-related topics. In the beginning, most of these were attended by very few, and in some cases, none, resulting in the cancellation of the presentation. But over time, firefighters, chaplains, and even family members began to partake.

So, why does it feel like we’re stuck in the mud at awareness? Because we are in a lot of ways.

Awareness is important. When first responders began to tell their stories, often on social media, the fire service became more aware and the stigma of staying silent began to melt away. Talks, classes, and other presentations on trauma became normalized. 

While lectures, classes, and presentations are a great way to educate people, the learning shouldn’t stop there. Often, valuable insights get lost after the event. Follow-up and feedback on these presentations are crucial to keep the conversation going and ensure continuous growth. Those attending these diverse presentations must bring the ideas discussed back to their department or organization. They should return empowered and eager to share with their fellow firefighters what they learned. The same ambition given to sharing new tactics and strategies, search techniques, or hose line operations needs to be given to presentations regarding mental wellness and trauma!

The other part of the problem is the availability of these presentations. Again, more classrooms and conference-level events incorporate mental wellness and trauma into their schedules, but not every fire department has access. Even for those that do, on average, one member will attend said event.

The big leap forward will come when accessibility is increased.

Most firefighters, especially those on call or volunteering, can not afford the price of admission to some of these conferences aimed at discussing mental health and wellness. These larger-sized conference-type events are also not hosted in every region where every department is within a reasonable distance. This becomes a deciding factor for the firefighter contemplating attending who might be unable to dedicate days to travel.

What would accessibility look like?

Department, organization, or region-based classroom size presentations that allow the costs to be shared by many or even a town or city government. Lower costs offered by the speakers and presenters allow these entities to put them in as a line item in their budgets. 

The other part that falls on the speakers and presenters is follow-up and feedback. After a few weeks following a presentation, the speaker should contact these departments and organizations again to ask for feedback and learn some of the takeaways from those in attendance.

Even the leadership and administrators should check in with those attending these events to ask for their thoughts and takeaways. Like any other training, we only learn from it if it is discussed and implemented. What good is a new technique for a fire attack if only six members have learned about it?

Our mental health and wellness as firefighters need to be looked at with as much enthusiasm and eagerness as going to live fire training. Over the last ten years, the fire service’s awareness of mental health and wellness, trauma, and PTSD has changed drastically to gain some momentum and continue the fight against the stigma. We need to bring these discussions back to the firehouse kitchen table.

The knowledge and resources are there, along with several competent presenters willing to share them with departments everywhere. It is time we began bringing these discussions to every fire station in North America and the world.

Only through continued education and word of mouth will we be able to save the lives of our brothers and sisters suffering in silence!

Photo by Stephen Baer

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