A lot has changed since I grew up in the department. These days, you shouldn’t see all the guys drinking at the bar then going on a fire call. You more than likely won’t see the 15 or 16 year-old high school junior drinking with the boys. If you are seeing this, I think it’s time to step in and change it. When I was coming up, these instances of drinking were not an uncommon practice. I don’t think there was any deliberate neglect; I just think they didn’t know any better. This sort of thing had been going on for generations.
I would say that through those years I’ve seen a lot of good people fall into the bottomless pit of alcoholism and substance abuse. When I started helping fellow firefighters, I was determined to change how the fire service enables alcoholism and doesn’t proactively step in on mental health issues. Allowing a fellow responder to struggle with these issues without helping out is unacceptable. I see a ton of resistance when I go to conferences and try to talk to guys about what’s going on. When I talk to chiefs, 90 percent of their responses are: “We have Critical Incident Stress Debriefings (C.I.S.D.)” Stepping in to offer help and understanding to a fellow first responder who is visibly suffering is not C.I.S.D. Though these C.I.S.D.’s are great for the “Bad” call and helpful, they do not fix the problem continuing six months to a year or more down the road.
When responders are going through some major life issues, they turn to what helps relieve the anguish. They go to their family doctor because they can’t sleep. “Doc I haven’t been sleeping lately. I’ve been having anxiety.” The doctor more often than not will prescribe some benzodiazepines and send them on their way. The doctor almost never asks, “Why haven’t you been sleeping? What’s been going on?” I’m going to list a few symptoms of stress to illustrate the many stress-related problems that could be going on with someone at your station:
- Memory problems
- Inability to concentrate
- Poor judgment
- Seeing only the negative
- Anxious or racing thoughts
- Constant worrying
- Emotional Symptoms
- Irritability or short temper
- Agitation, inability to relax
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Sense of loneliness and isolation
- Depression or general unhappiness
- Aches and pains
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Nausea, dizziness
- Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
- Loss of sex drive
- Frequent colds
- Eating more or less than usual
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Isolating yourself from others
- Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
- Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
- Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)
Internet Sites to Assist You
So after looking through the symptoms of stress above, do you think that if you go to a doctor with aches and pains, he’s going to ask you what’s been stressing you out? More than likely he will not. He is going to prescribe an opiate pain reliever. Then boom, before you know it, you have an addiction issue. You just started a downfall that you have never experienced. Many times when we are treated, we are treating the symptoms of another problem.
What can we do as a responder community to help change this? Most of the time the downward spiral of a fellow responder is noticeable way before the fall happens. We see behavior changes in a fellow responder before he or she may notice. Sit down and talk with them and see what’s going on. We trust each other more than we trust anyone else.
If we realize we play a role in this person’s continued mental health, we can take certain actions, such as trying not to ridicule the person when they are embarrassing themselves every time they go out on the town. If it’s becoming more frequent, then maybe as a fellow “Brother” or “Sister” we need to stop enabling that behavior by being a part of it. Sit down with them and have a discussion about how their behavior is affecting them in a negative way.
We have to really start looking out for each other on and off the “Call.” Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because we care about each other. The positive thing about being a part of a “brotherhood” is we’re supposed to be a big family. That’s what sets this job apart from any other job. So if one of your immediate family members were struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse, you would do your best to help. Do the same thing for your family at the station. They deserve it too.
Use all the tools in your toolbox that can assist you or your partner in the event of need.