When you hear the word hero, the first picture that comes to mind may be of masks, capes, and an enthusiastic motto about justice. In reality, heroes are not the fictional characters we read about in comic books or watch fight crime on television. Real heroes exist, and they walk amongst us every day.
Real heroes are the men and women who continuously risk their lives in an effort to protect ours. Our firefighters are real heroes, and sometimes heroes need saving too.
The job of a firefighter is essential to keeping our community safe. They are the ones we call to run into burning buildings, rescue civilians from tragedy, and a host of another emergency situations. We know that they risk their lives for us, but it is not always in the way that we think.
These heroes face side effects beyond the immediate dangers of the job. They fight an invisible predator that takes countless lives every day. This enemy manifest itself as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and suicide. In 2017 alone, more firefighters tragically died from suicide than they did in the line of duty.
This statistic may seem shocking but exists for a multitude of reasons. Many of us can picture a tragic moment in our lives with an extreme clarity. We can picture the moment as if we were still there and feel the grief it left behind. These firefighters experience these tragic moments on a day-to-day basis, and often carry the trauma of it home with them.
Their lives are flooded with moments of extreme tragedy, intense emotion, and overwhelming visual disturbances. It is not surprising then, that repeated exposure trauma (RET), often leads to symptoms associated with PTSD. These symptoms include, but are not limited to, intense flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, reoccurring nightmares, displaced anger, heightened reactions, emotional detachment, loss of interest in activities, anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide.
The number of firefighters who suffer from the emotional toll of their job is overwhelming. Studies have shown that firefighters are five times more likely than the general public to suffer from symptoms of depression and PTSD, and ten times more likely to engage in suicidal behaviors. In 2015 alone, the Journal of Emergency Medical Services reported that in a survey of more than 4,000 first responders, 37% had considered suicide and roughly 7% had attempted it. These numbers are staggering, and they can’t be ignored.
Fortunately, there is help available to those who need it. Seeking help for behavioral health issues is not always easy, but it’s essential to living a healthy, happy life. It is critical that we reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues, and prioritize the mental well-being of the men and women who put their lives on the line for us.
The first step of this endeavor is being actively vocal about the struggles our firefighters may be facing, and promoting the importance of seeking help. These men and women need to know they are not alone, and that there are resources available to them.
Therapists are available to help combat the effects of depression and PTSD. This may begin with identifying and understanding emotional triggers so we can better learn how to combat them. There are multiple therapeutic techniques proven to greatly alleviate the effects of these ailments.
These include but are not limited to, trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). CBT is a proven effective type of therapy that helps patients come to terms with past traumatic events.
This is done by confronting emotional trauma, and restructuring the thoughts around it. It is not uncommon for those suffering from PTSD to avoid the traumatic event in an attempt at preventing the pain associated with it. However, avoidance eliminates the opportunity to come to terms with the trauma, and in turn eliminates the ability to heal.
The goal of this type of therapy is identifying unhealthy thought patterns, and substituting them with a more desirable emotional response. EMDR is a type of therapy proven highly effective in reducing the side effects associated with PTSD.
During EMDR, a licensed clinician will expose the patient to brief emotionally disturbing memories while diverting their attention to an external stimulus. The clinician will then gradually gravitate the patient’s thoughts to more positive ones. This allows the traumatic events to be associated with new information and in turn become less disabling.
EMDR certified therapists must complete two levels of training, and are available at Brightside Behavioral Health. Ultimately, we must recognize the crisis affecting our firefighters. They are experiencing higher levels of debilitating mental health issues than the vast majority of Americans.
They devote their lives to protecting us, and we owe it to them to be their advocates. We must know the signs and symptoms of PTSD and depression, we must advocate for mental health services in our fire stations, and we must normalize and promote seeking help when needed.
Resources are ready and available for those struggling. Firefighters have saved the lives of those in our community, now we must come together to protect theirs.
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