The Need for Understanding

Recently, the fire service was shaken by the death of a well known Chief Officer and FDIC Instructor who many knew and loved. Just last month, another Chief Officer died after leaving a parting message on his Facebook profile.

Suicide is not a term that many like to talk about…especially not firefighters. Commonly, we only see it talked about after it happens.

I admit, my view of suicide has changed dramatically over the past few years. My beliefs growing up have been altered by what I have seen and what I have learned. While my understanding of mental illnesses is still evolving, I have learned enough to know that I can’t simply understand what it it like for those who suffer from it.

Even yet, there are still so many “macho” firefighters out there who throw out terms like PTSD and “triggered” in making jest about those who have mental illnesses. Unfortunately they are the misinformed, childish, and often inept firefighters who simply do not “get it”. This type of disrespect for an issue which plagues the fire service among other occupations should not be stood for. I’ll leave it at that.

I do not suffer from mental illness, I know firefighters who do. I also know plenty more who could in the future if they don’t find ways of dealing with things they see and experience in our line of work. Talking about it, letting them know that it is okay to have emotion in our line of work, and paying attention to our peers is a necessity nowadays.

We have got to remove the stigma of mental illness as being a weakness.

I am no expert in the subject, I have been around and learned from some who are and I appreciate their dedication to the issue. Dealing with emotional trauma in our line of work is going to happen. As a matter of fact, the things we see and experience on a daily basis can be events which some experience as being emotionally traumatic and yet don’t effect others the same way.  Finding ways to deal with our experiences are just as important as keeping our bodies physically healthy.

But are all firefighters suicides due to emotional trauma experienced while performing our duties as firefighters? No, not at all.

On top of our occupational exposure to stressors which can lead to mental illness, we have the same issues everyone else has which can lead to mental illnesses. This puts us at an even greater risk.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that we need to be there for each other. We need to pay attention to each other and differences which might be signs of internal struggles with our peers. We need to be understanding that occasionally we see and experience things that might effect our peers differently than us. We need to be able to talk about these experiences and understand it is okay to have emotions.

Are you your brothers keeper?

Much thanks to Paul Combs for creating the poster below. The illustration incorporated is one that Willie and I share regularly when discussing professional wellness to firefighters. Print it out and hang it up.