Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Behavioral Health: Continuing the Conversation

National Fallen Firefighter Foundation "New Goals" poster (on average a firefighter dies in the line of duty every 4 hours...many can be prevented

[This article is a joint effort between Firehouse magazine and the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program to promote firefighter health and wellness. HELP OTHERS - HELP YOURSELF]

Did you know that firefighter suicides are rarely linked to the firefighter’s experience on one or two big, traumatic calls? The experts tell us it is usually a confluence of small personal and professional stressors, that, over time, become too much to bear. The March Firehouse magazine article “Who Responds to a Firefighter’s Worst Day?” introduces the idea that our emotional reactions to incidents are varied and somewhat unpredictable. Although as a fire service we’ve improved the screening process and assistance we provide to firefighters following traumatic calls, this article underscores that there are many other factors that contribute to stress. Left unresolved, they can cause mental and emotional damage over time.

Suicide aside, there are countless examples of the toll a firefighting career can take: divorce, burnout, substance abuse, a sense of entitlement or cynicism, or simply the sadness that comes when you realize you don’t love the job the way you used to.
Preventing this toll and staying emotionally and mentally healthy isn’t easy, but there are several steps you can take without even thinking the words “behavioral health”:
  • Stay physically active. Numerous studies have detailed the connection between mental health and physical activity. Physical activity can boost endorphins, improve appetite and sleep, enhance confidence and provide a mental “escape” from the day-to-day grind. For some firefighters, group physical activities such as soccer or running clubs can strengthen relationships with spouses, co-workers or even children – or provide a valuable connection to friends outside the fire service, who can offer a different perspective about problems or stress you might be feeling in the station.
  • Get familiar with the services your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provides. If you’re a career firefighter, you probably have access to an EAP (many volunteers may have access to an EAP through their full-time jobs). But do you know what that access gives you? If you know what help is available and how to get it, you’re much more likely to reach out when you need it – or be able to help a crewmember tap into the services. Don’t just shove the EAP brochure in a file somewhere. Take the time to learn the specifics – how many counseling sessions can you have? What costs will you bear, if any?
  • Periodically use the Trauma Screening Questionnaire (TSQ). If you have five to 10 minutes, you can perform a quick self-check using the TSQ to help identify warning signs. The questionnaire, which is designed to be an easily accessible way for firefighters to determine whether they are in need of behavioral health assistance, is available on the Everyone Goes Home website in the section about Firefighter Life Safety Initiative #13. If you’re a company officer, ask your members to use this tool whenever you think the crew’s exposure to stress has risen. Make a habit out of performing these types of self-checks and checks on your crew members. Just like the muscle memory you build during training, regular checks on your mental health can be key to survivability. Find the Trauma Screening Questionnaire (PDF) here.
  • Don’t shortchange your personal relationships. Connections with relatives and friends are vital to mental and emotional wellbeing; some studies have demonstrated that close friendships can even have a dramatic impact on our ability to survive diseases such as cancer and may lower our risk of heart disease. Identify the most important people in your life and make an effort to spend more time with them. Even “virtual” time – Skype, phone conversations, FaceTime, multiplayer video games – can enhance your sense of connectedness and alleviate stress. 
With these practical steps in mind, let’s consider this month’s discussion questions:
  • How can we overcome the stigma often associated with behavioral health?
  • How can we build a peer support model in which family members, spouses and firefighters who are burn victims are all helping one another in our department?
You can answer both of these questions by accessing the Firehouse.com Forums here.

TIMOTHY E. SENDELBACH is the Editor-in-Chief for Firehouse. A 29-year student and educator of the fire and emergency services, he is responsible for the content and editorial direction of Firehouse® Magazine, Firehouse.com, Firehouse Expo, Firehouse World and related products. He has served as an assistant fire chief with the North Las Vegas, NV, Fire Department, as the chief of training for Savannah, GA, Fire & Emergency Services and as assistant fire chief for Missouri City, TX, Fire & Rescue Services. He is a credentialed Chief Fire Officer and Chief Training Officer and has earned a master’s degree in leadership from Bellevue University, bachelor’s degrees in fire administration and arson and an associate’s degree in emergency medical care from Eastern Kentucky University. You can e-mail him at tim@firehouse.com.

Behavioral Health: Continuing the Conversation March 18, 2015

We would like to thank Tim and Firehouse® Magazine for allowing us to reprint this article. Follow Tim on Facebook or Twitter.

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