Firefighters are held as heroes in American culture. Whether they are rushing into a blaze to rescue a beloved pet or responding to a multi-car crash on a treacherous stretch of highway, they command admiration from their communities without ever seeking it.
But wearing that imaginary cape can be costly. The horrors of the job pile up over time, burrowing into the firefighter’s psyche and chipping away at their emotional stability. Friends and family are repelled by a relentless schedule, straining relationships beyond repair.
Yet all the while, firefighters are burdened by an innate responsibility to project only strength. They’d rather suffer silently than show any vulnerability – to the public or each other – and risk shattering the perception that they are superheroes walking among us. According to a 2018 study by the Boston-based Ruderman Family Foundation, firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
The profession is among the most prone to post-traumatic stress, depression and other behavioral health conditions, according to research by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Firefighters suffer from those afflictions at a rate five times higher than the general population, per the Ruderman Family Foundation’s research.
If left unchecked, this silent epidemic will only worsen. The job is more hazardous than ever due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the wildfires that annually scorch vast swaths of California forestland. These extraordinary circumstances are compounding existing stressors.
Consider the case of Rick Stack, a retired North Attleboro, Mass., firefighter who in 2018 detailed his battle with PTSD in an interview with the Boston Globe. A former captain who excelled at handling accident victims with a compassionate, calm demeanor, Stack’s escalating condition resulted in multiple suicide attempts.
Friends and family staged an intervention in 2015 that led Stack to seek treatment from McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., where he received his diagnosis from a special psychiatric program for veterans and first responders that was instituted shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing.
Some symptoms were barely perceptible, while others manifested as full-fledged panic attacks. In retrospect, one of the earliest warning signs for Stack occurred when a song playing on the car radio triggered a vivid flashback of an emergency scene, overwhelming his senses with grisly details. His stoic facade was cracking.
“I thought I was bulletproof,” Stack said. “I thought nothing ever bothered me.”
Ultimately, Stack’s road to recovery closed a chapter in his life. His marriage dissolved after 18 years, and he retired at 49. He has since rededicated his life to helping fellow firefighters reckon with the agonizing truth he struggled to see in the mirror for years.
After completing an extended treatment program at the IAFF Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery in Maryland, Stack now publishes first-person essays in trade magazines, amplifying a message that needs to be heard.
“When a firefighter dies in the line of duty, there’s a huge amount of media coverage, but on this issue, the silence is deafening,” Miriam Heyman, the program director for the Ruderman Family Foundation, told the Globe in 2018. “If you break a leg on the job, it’s OK, but a mental health injury is seen as a weakness.”
Still, the recognition must come from within. When Kurt Becker, a paramedic firefighter in St. Louis County, noticed his unit had been consumed by, in his words, “warrior culture,” he took it upon himself to start cataloging worrisome behaviors. The pandemic had surfaced several instances of what Becker termed “stress markers,” including erratic and profane social media posts.
“The virus scares the hell out of our guys,” Becker told the New York Times in May 2020. “And now, when they go home to decompress, instead, they and their spouses are home-schooling. The spouse has lost a job, and is at wit’s end. The kids are screaming. Let me tell you – the tension level in the crews is through the roof.”
Elsewhere, wildfires that increase in intensity with each passing year are ravaging the West Coast, thrusting firefighters into an extreme assignment. Sifting through the ashes of man-made structures while equipped with insufficient gear exposes them to chemicals that can cause long-term illnesses. And they work grueling hours at the seemingly hopeless task of trying to tame these acre-spanning blazes, putting their minds and bodies through a crucible of stress.
Accordingly, a 2018 study published in the journal Psychiatry Research found that 55 percent of the wildland firefighters surveyed had suffered from “clinically significant suicidal symptoms” compared to 32 percent from the ranks of their stationhouse counterparts.
“Social connectedness within the fire service, particularly among wildland firefighters, might be one avenue for suicide prevention among firefighters,” the study concluded.
Indeed, as one wildland firefighter wrote in an open letter to Congress that was published on Change.org in 2020: “We miss our kids’ birthdays, friends’ barbecues, aren’t around to help put the kids to bed or make dinner, and this takes a toll on us. This causes us to lose social connections and friendships, to feel distant from our loved ones, and increases our divorce rates because we aren’t present to support our partners.”
The impassioned appeal for basic reforms and readily available firefighter mental health resources has drawn over 30,000 signatures.
“Don’t call us ‘heroes’ either,” the author added, “because when divorce, mental health problems and declining wages are the reality, we don’t feel like heroes at all.”
The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance in Branson, Mo., can provide a free firefighter mental health screening, as well as an assortment of Zoom-based workshops and webinars. The topics include “Saving Those Who Save Others” and “An Internal Size-Up,” with much of the content focused on honing the necessary skills to observe mental health cues.
But there is another way firefighters can play a vital role in destigmatizing the rampant PTSD that is tearing a tragic path through their ranks. With an online BS/BA degree from the fire services administration program at Eastern Oregon University, firefighters can help their colleagues by moving into a leadership role.
The rigorous online program – ranked among the finest in the country by Best Degree Programs – offers foundational courses taught by expert faculty, such as emergency services, fire behavior, strategy, and prevention. But students will also develop an aptitude for management, enabling them to become skilled communicators with a breadth of knowledge about firefighter mental health resources.
Eastern Oregon University’s fire services administration program serves as a beacon of change, helping to facilitate a national conversation that will urge other firefighters to come forward and open up about their struggles. These are vital resources for firefighters who want to help their colleagues and move into an administrative role. And an online BS/BA degree in fire services administration from Eastern Oregon University can position them to reverse the course of this tragic trend.
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