By Jeff Bryan, Firefighter/EMT-1
First responders are special people. Most don’t think about money or glory; rather they are motivated by the reward of providing safety and relief, doing all they can to help others.
While some might consider first responders super heroes, just like the rest of humanity they have a very real vulnerability: mental health. Few go into the profession thinking about how the job will affect them mentally. As a public servant who cares, I feel mental health should be held to the same standard as physical fitness.
Let’s face it, we all have triggers. Whether it’s daily stress or the horror of what first responders encounter at a fire, automobile crash or domestic violence, it affects us. We mostly click into survival mode, pushing the pain and gore into a corner of our conscious, reacting to the situation with as little emotion as possible. Seeing repetitive tragedy is hard on anyone and it takes a toll. Those emotions can and do resurface and we can react in a couple different ways. Some find positive ways to cope, others cope in self-destructive ways. I am urging all of us to be aware of “triggers” that warn someone is having trouble: they are quick to anger, suffer depression or exhibit self-destructive behavior like taking undue chances or turning to drugs or alcohol. We need to be aware that these are signs of post-traumatic stress. I thought nothing could bother me but I have since learned that no one is immune, but many will deny it. If we weren’t affected by all this, we would be narcissistic; but most first responders aren’t.
First responders are coping the only way they know how. They see and experience things that most others don’t. Here’s the problem; we must address the issue but most public servants are terrified to seek help. Why?
Many are fearful of persecution and losing employment. Those who admit they need help are often looked upon as mentally weak and “damaged.” While there has been a shift of thought in this area, too often admitting that the job is getting to them leads to castigation and forced retirement.
I have seen my fair share of tragedy and I am the first to admit it affected me. I was always happy-go-lucky, but the job has changed me. I realized I couldn’t do this on my own so I decided to get help. I have been seeing a psychotherapist for ten years. At first, I was very embarrassed. Now, I want to help others get the help they might need too. Three years ago, I invited a mental health professional to talk to our staff members. The turnout was not that great and I was hurt. I was told, “Jeff, it went well and we will come back. We touched a few and it made a difference.”
I learned help can come it many forms whether it be a support group, a church pastor, a trusted friend, your partner or someone on your crew. It’s time we put this on the table and say enough is enough, otherwise more public servants will just walk away from the job, self-medicate or commit suicide. Personally, every suicide I read about hurts me. I lost a cousin to suicide. He was a very prominent surgeon, he was my age, and it devastated my family.
I will offer one other piece of advice: use exercise and hobbies to deal with stress. Don’t let your job define your life. I find climbing is the one sport that lets my brain rest. I can only think about the rock or ice, the route and the next move; my mind is free of everyday noise. I also actively pursue therapy and I talk with my wife. Many I know have used Eye Movement Desensitizing Reprocessing (EMDR) to treat PTSD. Whatever works for you – bowling, bike riding or hitting the gym – get going and help your mind through physical activity.
I hope writing this article will make more of us stop and pay attention. Know the warning signs: loss of interest in activities, self-medication, poor hygiene, isolation and depression or anger. Other signs are a change in one’s empathy and compassion. Those of us working as first responders need to notice those on our crew who might complain when the tones drop, if they suffer from night terrors or even cry; it’s a sign our brother or sister needs help. We need to show empathy and compassion to each other and extend a hand. Let’s also not forget our retired or disabled public servants. Call and invite them to the station for a meal. Make time for them. Too many of our brothers and sisters are getting divorced and committing suicide. Let’s change the stigma and turn around the statistics.
Health and wellness must include taking care of our public servants’ mental health. It’s a concern for all of us, no one can do it all themselves. We can listen and offer advice, but if we try to become everyone’s problem solver we end being affected ourselves. We need to change the culture and make professional help available. Our leaders sometimes forget about life in the trenches. I don’t blame them; they most likely have dealt with the same issues but now they fight different battles. Their concerns are budgets, staffing, equipment upgrades, etc.
Slowly, more of the public safety leadership is addressing the issue of PTSD and the mental health of their crews. I urge more of those leaders to make a commitment to mental health. Please lobby to bring this issue to the forefront before you read about one of your people doing something rash. A proactive mental health program is also needed to reduce PTSD and worker burnout.
Jeff Bryan, Firefighter/EMT-I
Jeff Bryan is a firefighter who doesn’t let adversity keep him down. Jeff returned to full time work in March 2015, just slightly less than a year after his right leg was amputated below the knee. Jeff, who is a firefighter and EMT Intermediate with the Ute Mountain Fire Department in southwest Colorado, refused to let the amputation keep him down. He was released from the hospital on his 50th birthday. He says there were two ways to go: give up and feel sorry for himself or push forward and beat it – he chose to move beyond and conquer it.
As soon as he was able, he started bicycling, ice climbing, paddle boarding, swimming and yoga. As far as anyone can determine, Jeff is the only firefighter in Colorado to return to fulltime active duty after a leg amputation. Jeff does not want to be known as the firefighter who lost a leg, but the guy who works hard to stay in shape and be the best EMT/firefighter he can.
Jeff provides insight and commentary on issues facing firefighters, EMTs and other first responders.
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