Helping a firefighter who is having an emotional mayday


CarolinaFireJournal - Mark Lamplugh
Mark Lamplugh
07/15/2014 -

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard after a department suicide, “We noticed something wasn’t right.” We all know our partners better than anyone else. Day in and day out we spend our time with them and yet they can slip into an emotional mayday that leads to tragic consequences without any intervention from those closest to them. I can say in my 12 years as an active firefighter I have never seen this topic discussed or even mentioned in a training, at a company meeting, or just in passing at the station. We have no plan in place to rescue a partner in trouble. We have this overwhelming sense that we’re unstoppable and can handle anything that comes our way.

Meanwhile, everything about this job has burnout written all over it. Whether you’re a paid firefighter working double shifts and short staffed or a volunteer who’s working a full time job and holding a company office, usually the effects of the job catch up to you before you even notice and it’s too late.

Part of being a firefighter is looking out for each other. The “two in and two out” rule should apply on and off the truck. It’s one of our defining practices based on the urgent realities of what we do. We wouldn’t leave our partner in a burning building.

But why then, would we leave them with an emotional mayday? Though we may not be able to solve their problems, we can help guide them to the resources that do. Just a very simple, “hey man, I noticed you’re not all together lately, why don’t you give this number a call” could go a long way. The sad thing is that the resources are there, ready and waiting.

Psychological stress and mental health issues can range from minor to severe, but all are actionable. They should be handled the moment we notice “something’s not right.” Taking the proper steps and intervening when the signs of psychological stress are present may be the key to helping before it’s too late. Here are a few helpful steps that you can use:

Watching:
Be Aware of the Warning Signs
Be aware of what your partners are doing and how they are behaving. As a friend you could be one of the first to become aware of changes in behavior.

Warnings signs to watch out for may include, but are not limited to:

  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Having difficulty concentrating and thinking clearly
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Feeling tired most of the time
  • Gaining or losing a significant amount of weight
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or guilty
  • Talking about suicide or death
  • Self-destructive behavior like drinking too much or abusing drugs
  • Losing interest in favorite things or activities
  • Mood swings

Showing: Show You Care
Let your partner know that you’re there for them. Ask about your partner’s feelings and listen carefully to what they have to say.

Asking: Are You Thinking About Suicide?
Talking with a partner about suicide will not put the idea into their head. Be direct in a caring, non-confrontational way.

Here are some ways to ask the question:

“Have you ever thought about suicide?”

“Do you want to die or do you just want your problems to go away?”

Helping: Going That Extra Step, Giving or Seeking Help
If a partner tells you they are thinking of suicide, never keep it a secret, even if you’re asked to. Do not try to handle the situation on your own. You’re more helpful by referring your partner to someone with the professional skills necessary to provide the help that he or she needs. You can continue to help by offering support.

Here are some ways to talk to your partner about getting help:

“I know where we can get some help.”

“Let’s talk to someone who can help. Let’s call the help line now.”

“I can go with you to get some help.”

If a partner mentions suicide, take it seriously. If they have expressed an immediate plan, or have access to prescription medication or other potentially deadly means, do not leave them alone. Get help immediately from your department or another medical professional. If necessary, take your partner to the nearest hospital.

Usually the writing is “on the wall” well before the breakdown or suicide. Often days and months before, their partners suspect a problem.

Because traumatic events, long hours, short staff, and other problems are everyday life for firefighters, very department should have an action plan in place to address a psychological mayday.

There are many different resources available to help departments address such issues. Reach out to one of these resources and put a plan in place or encourage your department to devise and put a plan in place. We wouldn’t send a firefighter in harm’s way without the best training they could have. Why not have the best mental health resources at your disposal? Every resource on the list below is free for departments.

With a little collective effort we can start working together to make sure every firefighter lives a happy and healthy life. Nominate one person in the department to start putting an action plan together. Attend mental health trainings when available. If trainings aren’t available then reach out to an organization on this list and they will work with you to be proactive instead of reactive.

 

Organizations

Mark Lamplugh is a former captain with Lower Chichester Fire Company and a Treatment Consultant with American Addiction Centers. He can be reach via email at [email protected] and phone at 1.888.731.FIRE (3473).
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Issue 33.3 | Winter 2018

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