A couple of weeks ago I received a text message that made my heart skip a beat. A former coworker had lost his personal battle. An invisible battle, where to end his suffering, he took his own life. This can’t keep happening. It nearly happened to me, and now it’s happened again; this time to someone I’ve laughed with in the firehouse kitchen and crawled alongside in burning buildings.
As I’ve chatted with friends, it would seem that his battle was in a silo, with no indicators this could happen. Sadly, we hear this time and again. “If I’d only known”. “It came out of the blue”. “How could this happen?”. There is no simple solution. To eliminate the stigma of mental health is to change the culture in emergency services. That culture of “I’m tougher than this”. The culture of “I can’t show my feelings”. The culture of “suck it up”. The truth is: We aren’t tougher than the horrible things we experience. You can and should show your feelings. Sucking it up and keeping it inside will rip you apart.
We are humans. Well trained humans. When it comes to throwing ladders, stretching lines, extricating victims, starting IV’s and administering medications, we are well trained. But, we are humans. Our brains aren’t wired to see death and devastation on a daily basis. Just as our bunker gear needs cleaning to rid them of carcinogens, our brains need cleansing to rid them of the emotional and psychological stressors.
How do we do that? We listen. We talk. We open ourselves up to be vulnerable. By talking to each other and seeing mental health professionals, we can help ourselves and our co-workers cleanse our brains.
To end the stigma requires a change in the culture we work in. It will take time, but we can’t wait. It needs to start today.
As leaders. As first responders. As the community. As friends. We need to open up all avenues to help each other. We’ve added seatbelts to fire trucks; better gear; fall arrest systems; extractor;, 2 sets of bunker gear and more; to make our jobs safer. Car accidents, heart disease, fires and cancer have been deemed killers of firefighters. Mental health and PTSD is no different. We need to exhaust all resources possible to prevent these injuries and deaths too.
We have to learn from these tragedies.
May you rest in peace my friend.