The smoke and debris has settled. Hot spots are extinguished. The trucks are clean and back in service. The constant hum of the engines and the roar of the flames is just wearing off and your shoulders still ache from your pack. The call is done. But your mind races with what you should have done quicker; how the tanker was delayed; how the pump lost its prime. Thoughts about who to blame, and certainly thoughts about blaming yourself, start a chaotic tornado in your mind. But, you don’t have a briefcase to leave the work of the day behind. Inevitably, you take some of this with you when you’re done.
But, before you reach for that extra beer know that there are things you can do to help with the impact of those tough calls. Here are 5 things that you are doing that you should immediately stop
1. You judge yourself
I start with this one because the nature of the field is one of competitiveness. Indeed, in Ontario, thousands vie for single digit jobs constantly. One of the ways that we try to sharpen our edge is through self-criticism. Calling ourselves out on our mistakes in an effort to prevent them from happening again. Unfortunately, this cognitive habit may create an unrealistic, and impossible standard for us to keep. Following this, when we make mistakes we will build these to be bigger, worse, and more important than we rate if someone else had made that mistake. We “catastrophize” the smallest errors in our pursuit of god-like skill.
These judgements chip away at our resilience. Indeed, the weight of these judgements can be enough for ourselves to implode and do worse at the very things we are so critical of ourselves for. Judgements can also accelerate problem emotions for us, such as anger. And, with it a growing sense of irritability and inability to “shake” the problem. This happens to all of us, but it helps to know that by trying to overcome our judgements of ourselves, we can also help mitigate issues that may come from a hard call.
2. You minimize the impact of those hard calls
We see a lot, and with that comes a certain level of normality. Therefore, what a person who has no experience in our field views as traumatic, might be something we see every day. But, we need to be doing a realistic, honest check. Why? Because, the calls that shake us can also be those that are innocuous. These are the medical calls that have folks that remind us of family members or friends and that can hits us harder than the accident with fatalities.
But, we often minimize the impact. When we sit around the table at the end of a call, we all take turns denying that anything happened to rub us the wrong way. “I’m fine” is the most common sentiment. And, this is also a great litmus test for stigmatic beliefs within your halls. It does grant us a certain easy escape from having to tell those around you that the call shook you. What strikes me as particularly odd is the fact that you will run into a burning building, trusting your life with those behind or in front of you, and yet you can’t trust them to take seriously an admission of mental struggle. Let’s use the brother and sisterhood to benefit us, not to harm us.
3. You won’t talk to anyone
This has echoes above, however in a more broad sense you won’t discuss these struggles with anyone. Just as we break the old habits of collecting debris on our helmets as a show of grit, we also collect these struggles. And, like a spring, the more we cram and repress, the harder they jump at us when we finally are unable to ignore the issues. And, we all hit a point where this becomes true. Peers, friends, and especially family, are there to support us. After all, our partners are with us on every call and worry about you when we run out the door. It becomes confusing if we return home distant, irritable, and still won’t talk to them.
What should you talk about? Not the gory details. That won’t help. Talk about how that call made you feel. I know, it’s a scary word. Reflecting to your partner or peers that you felt “hopeless” or “helpless” helps them understand your struggle. Your partners will thank you as it helps them understand what it is that you’re experiencing. This goes a long way to relieve some of those compressed emotions that you have and to build stronger relationships where open discussion is important. As I often tell folks, you might not be able to change what happens at your Departments, but you can change what happens at your home.
4. You think it’s showing weakness.
What a backwards time that we must live when we believe that continuing to push through despite mental illness is a “weakness”. Another truth time. The impact of this job didn’t magically happen to appear. It’s been here for a long time. And, many people continued in this career despite these struggles. Now, they might not have been able to cope in the appropriate manner (drinking too much, for instance, seems to align with research in the field), but they used what little resources they had. We know a lot more and we know of the impact of unhealthy coping skills. But, we also have an “untapped” resilience within our services. We should begin to use the function of the brotherhood and sisterhood to ensure that weakness is no longer being too afraid to speak up about these issues. That a weakness is actually allowing stigma to grow by allowing it to control our ability to speak out.
Isn’t it a confusing world that we live, when an Olympian wins gold despite injury and we congratulate them but, if we are struggling with an occupational injury then that is something to be hid and ashamed of? The true strength, comes from our ability to identify that we are struggling and recover in spite of it. Weakness doesn’t seem to equal the constant battle of just trying to get out of bed, let alone get dressed and work a 8, 12, or 24 hour shift and with such pressures that are expected of us to work through. And this is the way that we can finally work on that lingering, nagging stigma that continues to shade our services.
5. Stop believing that everyone has PTSD
This is the consequence of the light-speed propulsion of PTSD into the media limelight. A common misconception is that this role will cause you to have PTSD and this is not true. It certainly increases the risk due to the trauma exposure, but it is in no way a guarantee that you will be destined for this disorder. This is perhaps the biggest understatement of the whole movement, and is frustrating that it isn’t spoken of more. However, there are some people who wish you to believe that just engaging in this job means that you will have developed PTSD.
PTSD is a complicated disorder to diagnose and has specific criteria. And, there are also other disorders that have similar symptoms that you could be experiencing (Acute Stress Disorder is one – check out “Jargon” for a bigger list of things that can affect us! ). When we blanket everyone with a disorder it also dilutes the devastation that it has on those who do develop the disorder. Remember the last time you heard someone reflect on their OCD because their desk is so clean? Yeah, we hear it all the time. Unfortunately, being neat and tidy does not quiet capture the world shattering obsessive nature of needing to complete entire routines that interfere with every aspect of your life. When a disorder becomes so widespread and so common place, it begins to get diminished in its severity because its nuances get absorbed into our language.
Take care of yourself. It might not be as “bad ass” as learning the new fire techniques but, it’s likely because these are all things that are much harder to complete than that! Being able to identify and address mental health concerns in a culture that is shy to new ideas takes grit. We need to give credit to those that are struggling. We can do that by standing with them, supporting them, and taking care of ourselves to prevent future harms.