Our Stress Is Real

Issue 2 and Volume 12.

Allow me to begin this article by stating the painfully obvious: We have a difficult job in which life-and-death decisions are a routine part of our day. Think about that for a moment. Most people never make a split-second decision that could either save or kill another human. We make those decisions all the time-often we make them several times a shift. It takes a toll. When the going gets tough (sometimes seemingly impossible to overcome), we can’t just throw our hands up and say, “Sorry. This is a toughie. I can’t help you with this one.” No, we don’t have that option; we have to come up with a plan and try. We see indescribably horrible things, and we have to work around the horror, on the spot, and without hesitation to assist those we can still help. As firefighters, it is important for us to understand that we aren’t alone in our feelings or experiences.

Like you, I love this job. I’ve worked in fire and emergency medical services since I was 16 years old. I used to do it for free, but I have been blessed to make a living as a firefighter/paramedic for the past 15+ years. I have also had the good fortune to become involved in peer support on both the local and international levels. From those experiences, I have seen how we all can suffer and struggle with the responsibilities of this work we love so much. And yes, it is perfectly acceptable to love this job and still admit that the stress from it makes your life more difficult. This job-related stress can be debilitating if we try to ignore it or self-medicate. I have seen too many colleagues try to avoid the physical and emotional pain of this job by engaging in high-risk behaviors. In the long run, those behaviors cost us our jobs, our families, and our lives. So, what can you do to maintain your mental health?

Strategies for Maintaining Mental Health

While there are any number of things you can do, here are a few recommendations:

Perform well-being examinations: One thing you can do quickly and regularly is examine your emotional well-being after every shift. When you get home from your shift, find a quiet place and think about how you feel. Are you irritable? Exhausted? Sad? Happy? Do you find yourself reliving past events when you’re alone? Do you avoid areas where bad events occurred? Are you having trouble sleeping regularly? While we can expect some of these feelings throughout our careers (and these feelings are indeed normal reactions), we need to seek out professional help if they become intrusive or persistent. The incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder in the fire service is way above the civilian average. One reason for this stark difference is our refusal to confront our emotions before they cause long-term problems for us. Regularly examining how we feel helps increase our self-awareness and bolsters recognition of emotional issues, which affords us the opportunity to get help before it’s too late.

Spend time with loved ones: What else can we do to stabilize emotional health? Here is a simple way: Do things with your family that make you smile. It seems so obvious, yet how often do we actively seek out pleasurable activities with our families? For a lot of us, we are busy working overtime or second jobs. Or perhaps we go into our den and sit alone on our days off-isolating ourselves from our families. It could also be that we are more interested in going out with the crew and grabbing a few drinks to blow off some steam. Now, I am not going to tell you that occasional isolation, quiet time, going out with the crew, and earning additional income are bad things. Indeed, those things can be healthy and necessary at times. But remember: When we retire, it is with the hope of having friends and especially family with whom we can enjoy our lives. Start now! Develop fun family relationships. Our families want to be a part of our lives, and we must do all we can to ensure they are there for us when the job no longer is. Establishing fun, positive relationships now can make all the difference when we reenter civilian life.

Use support services: If you have an employee assistance program or access to mental health services, go see a social worker on the anniversary of your hire date-whether you think you need it or not. Actually going in and talking to a social worker removes the mystery of it. It helps us get comfortable with the idea of talking to someone, and we see that the stigma associated with visiting a social worker or other mental health professional is undeserved. If nothing else, taking the first step of visiting a clinician now will make it easier to make the call in the event you really need help. Set yourself up for success by seeing what it’s all about before you are in a crisis.

Establish life beyond the fire service: The next recommendation may be considered blasphemy in many circles, but it has to be said: Do not allow the fire service to become your life. Taking pride in our job and what it means to be a firefighter is fantastic, but letting this job consume our identities can be harmful. At some point, we all have the feeling that being a firefighter is who we are, not simply what we do, and that overwhelming pride is understandable. But, as uncomfortable as it may be, let’s examine what this “I, firefighter” mentality can mean in the long run. On day one of your retirement, if you see yourself exclusively as a firefighter, your entire identity will be stripped away. To the personnel on the fire engines and fire trucks roaring by, you are simply a civilian again. If you aren’t prepared for the eventuality of being a nonfirefighter, you are setting the stage for loneliness and a loss of personal direction. We have all seen the retiree who is absolutely lost after leaving the job because the job was that person’s entire life, his identity, his everything-and it is heartbreaking. We should maintain a mindset that this is the job we do for now but not the person we are. You are not betraying the job or your oath by recognizing that one day you will have to turn in your gear. By accepting that there will be a day when we no longer report for duty, we can start developing the relationships and nonfire life that give us something to look forward to in retirement. We can be excited about what’s next rather than fixating on what we leave behind.

Make nonfire friends: At this point, you may be asking, “How do I expand my identity beyond the job I spend one-third of my life doing?” I submit that one of the best ways to successfully balance our identities is to find plenty of friends who don’t work in the fire service. Again, this may not be a popular idea in the circles we run, but, put simply, if your only friends are firefighters, you need more friends. Why? Because we all know when firefighters get together off duty, we spend the whole night talking about firefighter stuff. The result is we never get a break from the job. Having friends besides our brothers and sisters fills an important part of our lives where we have discussions and experiences outside of our profession. Among the many emotional pitfalls we encounter on this job, burnout and compassion fatigue are major players. When we spend both our professional and social lives discussing and pondering fire-service-related activities, our lives are placed out of balance. We have to find things beyond the job with which to entertain ourselves. Having friends of varied professions and backgrounds is the perfect way to broaden the spectrum of our experiences and get a break from the stressors of the job. Having firefighter friends who understand us and where we come from is indispensable, but expanding friendships beyond the comfort of our firehouse family is essential to enjoying life during and after our careers.

We see indescribably horrible things, and we have to work around the horror, on the spot, and without hesitation to assist those we can still help. (Photo by Tod Sudmeier.)

The Next Step

There are many more examples of things we can do to improve our mental health both before and after retirement. But hopefully the examples discussed above give you some guidance to start down a healthy path. The stigma associated with mental health services is finally disappearing, but it is up to each of us to have the courage to understand ourselves and seek help when needed. And the need to evaluate ourselves doesn’t stop when we finish our last tour at the firehouse. Indeed, we must look beyond the job by not pretending that we will be firefighters forever. As hard as it may be to accept, at some point, no matter how great you are at this job, it will be taken from you. You need to do everything you can to ensure that friends, family, and good personal health await you when that day arrives.

Brandon K. Dreiman is a 15-year veteran of the fire service and a firefighter/paramedic with the Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department (IFD). He is the coordinator of the IFD/Local 416 Peer Support Group and serves as a peer support master instructor for the International Association of Fire Fighters.