Can you imagine what it would be like if job descriptions included all the potential risks associated with particular professions? Luckily, most organizations do not have the same legal liability for citing potential pitfalls and occupational hazards.
I enjoy playing co-rec softball, and every season I am required to sign a release acknowledging that I could be killed participating in this activity and I cannot hold anyone but myself accountable. I have signed similar releases to rent skis, to swim with Dolphins, even to have my teeth cleaned!
How much information do we need to make wise decisions regarding our health and safety?
It is no secret that firefighters, first responders and public safety personnel willingly put their own lives at risk in service to others. These professions put its players in the line of fire every day, literally and figuratively. So it is not surprising that those noble public servants assume higher risk of the negative consequences that come with constant pressure including increased incidences of divorce, domestic violence, post-traumatic stress and suicide.
Considering what these public servants see and experience every day, along with the extreme emotion that comes with continuous exposure to crisis, it comes as no surprise they are prone to serious side effects.
An Ounce of Prevention
It is our predominant perspective, our underlying outlook or “explanatory style” that determines the impact of experiences on our mind, body and spirit. Those who realize that each event is temporary, and learn to depersonalize incidents are most likely to bounce back from serious situations.
The ability to see the silver lining and choose a positive perspective plays a major role regarding the short and long term impact of events for everyone, but especially those who consistently confront crisis and trauma. People who are generally happy, flexible and resilient are least likely to explore extreme avenues for escaping their pain. Our social support system plays a significant role as shock absorbers, social mirrors and safety nets in every facet of life, particularly prolonged exposure to emergencies, injury and death.
Research suggests that PTSD is least common in people who:
- Have a strong support system
- Are connected with and communicate with significant others
- Consistently adopt an optimistic perspective
- Demonstrate resilience
Learn to be sensitive to some of the subtle and not so subtle signs that someone may be considering suicide:
- Withdrawal and loss of interest in previous hobbies and activities
- Unprovoked anger, hostility, irritability or mood swings
- Extreme changes in behavior and/or sleeping patterns
- Saying good bye verbally and/or in writing to loved ones
- Giving away prized possessions
Sometimes the symptoms are obvious, and often they are non-existent. Knowing people personally is your primary prerequisite to predicting potential problems. Being a member of the Brotherhood blurs personal and professional boundaries as a result of living and working together in volatile situations. While many may respond to the same call together, each will experience and interpret it differently, complicating the capacity for collective understanding and intervention. Simply sitting together and talking about the situation afterwards can have a significant impact for individuals as well as work environments. Some firefighters have suggested that consuming ice cream and coffee during these conversations can also have a soothing effect.
Consider these crucial keys for keeping yourself and others abreast of potential issues:
Be aware of subtle as well as significant changes in behavior patterns and interaction.
Ask curious questions and listen for feelings beyond the words.
Express genuine concern when you feel it is warranted.
Recognize the reality of risk that comes with particular professions.
Realize that feeling down is part of life and an immediate opportunity for learning and growth
Respect your feelings and those of others; they are the body’s signaling system.
Embrace a positive and realistic perspective regarding current challenges, choices and consequences
Encourage others to explore optimism regarding potential options and outcomes
Challenge the accuracy of exaggerated emotions and expectations
Engage in activities that reduce stress and increase pleasure
Talk about specific observations and concerns: Name it and Claim it!
Take immediate action when you or someone you know is in crisis
Every experience has the potential of serious side effects, and suicide is something we all need to take seriously. While it can be a desperate cry for help, thousands of people succeed at taking their own lives every day. Incidences are increasing, particularly in young people and professionals in fields that expose them to consistent crisis and chaos. Firefighters, first responders, public safety and military personnel are at particular risk.
Be sensitive to potential sources, symptoms and strategies for addressing serious situations in both your personal and professional relationships. Social support is a significant source of strength for everyone, but particularly important for first responders and their families. Shedding the stigma of seeking assistance and expressing vulnerability are immediate avenues for avoiding extreme responses to stress. The “invincible Ironman” persona embraced by many members of the Brotherhood can be a double-edged sword, especially when it comes to the cumulative impact of occupational hazards. Seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness, and is often much more effective than “sucking it up” both in the short and the long term.
I remember learning that a fire extinguisher is not designed for me to put the fire out; it is simply a tool to get me out of the fire! Awareness and acknowledgement of serious side effects and their impact are the same: not intended to immediately extinguish the issues but valuable tools for moving to safer ground.