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10 Ways Firefighters Can Support Their Own Mental Health

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This article originally appeared on FireRescue1.com. Special thanks to our guest author, Linda F. Willing, for FireRescue1 BrandFocus.

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It’s a stressful job, so you need to know how to check in and take care of yourself

Firefighting is a stressful occupation. Working in unpredictable and hazardous environments takes a physical toll. Difficult calls, variable duty schedules, working in close proximity with others who may or may not be personally compatible – all of these things contribute to stress that, if not well managed, can lead to significant issues for both physical and mental health.

In recent years, fire departments have done much better in emphasizing physical health and safety, through such things as improved protocols for use and care of PPE, the mandatory use of seatbelts and requirements for rehab during prolonged incidents. Many fire departments now have regular health screenings for all members and maintain records on long-term health risks like job-related cancers.

Attention to firefighter mental health has lagged behind more obvious physical hazards. According to a 2017 study, more firefighters die from suicide each year than in the line of duty. Firefighters are at increased risk of depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health-related problems that may be either chronic or acute. While organizational support in these areas would be optimal, individual firefighters can also take steps to care for their own mental health.

Here are 10 simple things you can do to support and enhance mental wellness for yourself and your fellow firefighters.



1. PRIORITIZE SLEEP

It’s just a fact that the majority of firefighters suffer from sleep deprivation throughout their lives on the job. In addition to being interrupted from sleep by emergency calls, many firefighters become hyper-alert so that even the smallest sound can wake them. Fire station dorms are often cramped and poorly ventilated, further disturbing sleep at work. Air purifiers and white noise machines can help with this. Most importantly, firefighters need to prioritize catching up on sleep on days away from work. Research is clear: The only thing that remedies loss of sleep is to sleep.

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2. IMPROVE YOUR DIET

Caffeine, sugar, extra salt, other food additives – all these things in excess can lead to diminished physical health, impaired sleep and increased stress. You don’t have to go on a ridiculously restrictive diet. Just be aware that what you eat (and drink) affects everything else in your life.

3. EXERCISE, ESPECIALLY OUTDOORS

Exercise is a proven stress reliever, in addition to improving overall health. But sometimes exercise can become just another obligation and, in that way, add to stress rather than relieve it. Make exercise both a habit and a pleasure. It is especially restorative to exercise outdoors – go for a run in the park, invite a friend for a tennis match or take a hike in the woods.

4. DIVERSIFY YOUR LIFE

Developing interests beyond the fire service can have enormous benefits on several different levels. Creative pursuits can provide outlets for work-related stress and trauma. Religious or other spiritual affiliation can provide deep solace and support. Things like yoga and meditation practices have proven value for managing stress. Non-fire department-related volunteer work can create new social and community ties. A new hobby or activity provides a respite from other life obligations and stressors.

5. INCLUDE YOUR FAMILY

Some firefighters feel they must protect their family members from their lives on the job, so they never talk about work when at home. But this is a mistake. You don’t have to share every detail of your workday, but family members want to understand what their loved ones do and can provide invaluable support when they have real information. Some fire departments have developed in-house programs to help firefighter families better comprehend the challenges of the job. Regional and nonprofit programs, including residential retreats, can further support healthy firefighter families.

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6. RENEW/INITIATE SOCIAL CONNECTIONS AND CONSIDER FINDING A COACH, MENTOR OR COUNSELOR

Good friends can be your greatest wealth. Many firefighters mainly have friends through the job, and this is a good thing because those people understand the job and you don’t have to explain or hold back. But only having friends through the job means that you never get away from it. Building friendships beyond the job can provide a healthy break and a new perspective.

Similarly, a mentor, coach or counselor can help provide support and promote mental well-being. The best athletes have a coach. Professional musicians have mentors. There is a stigma in public safety around asking for help, yet, if we want to strive to be the best we can be, it’s important to engage with others to help us on our journey. Finding a counselor or mentor you can trust and confide in can go a long way toward improving your mental health.

7. DON’T FORGET YOUR PETS

Contact with animals is a known stress reliever. Some fire departments have developed programs that provide trained therapy dogs and handlers to support firefighter mental wellness. Take your dog with you when you go for a hike or a run. If you don’t have pets of your own, you can always volunteer to help out at the local animal shelter.

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8. STAY UP TO DATE WITH TRAINING AND PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

Feeling hesitant about essential work skills is not only stressful, it’s dangerous. Reinforcing existing skills and learning new ones are confidence boosters for both you as an individual and for your team. As one mental health professional once said, “If you want to reduce stress in the fire service from emergency calls, run better calls.”

9. BE AWARE OF SELF-MEDICATION AND SUBSTANCE USE

Firefighters often suffer from sleep deprivation, chronic pain and job-related stress. All these factors can contribute to a pattern of self-medication through prescription and non-prescription drugs, as well as alcohol. Most firefighters are aware of the dangers of alcohol and drug dependency, but patterns of use and abuse can develop gradually, and increasing dependency can lead to rationalization and denial.

Be honest with yourself. How much alcohol do you actually consume in any given week? Are you taking medication to help with sleep? It is good to monitor use of non-prescription medications as well, as long-term use of things like anti-inflammatories, acid blockers or over-the-counter sleep aids can have impacts on both physical and mental wellness.

10. KEEP UP TO DATE WITH MEDICAL CARE

Staying on top of regular health checkups has been a challenge for everyone during pandemic times. Medical providers have been overwhelmed, and many non-emergency or elective visits were postponed during the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak. That pressure has eased somewhat, but some medical facilities are still short staffed, and some people have allowed routine medical care to lapse.

This is a dangerous pattern. Stay current with preventative care and routine screenings. Take the time to find a primary care doctor that you trust and who understands the job that you do. Be honest with them about the physical and mental stressors that you experience both on and off the job. Consider asking for mental health referrals – you might be surprised by how helpful visiting with a counselor or therapist can be.

Until recently, mental health has not been a high priority in the fire service. In the past, asking for help in this area may have been perceived as a sign of weakness. Thankfully, this is beginning to change, and fire departments are recognizing that physical and mental wellness are completely intertwined – you cannot have one without the other.

For more resources on promoting positive changes in mental health, check out the following toolkits:

 

About the author

Linda Willing is a retired career fire officer and currently works with emergency services agencies and other organizations on issues of leadership development, decision-making, and diversity management through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. She is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor with the National Fire Academy. Willing is the author of On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories. Willing has a bachelor’s degree in American studies, a master’s degree in organization development and is a certified mediator. She is a member of the FireRescue1/Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Willing via email.

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