Breaking through the stigma

No matter how tough, no one is immune to the anguish that can build from a career of difficult calls.

All too often, we keep the anguish buried inside, afraid to be labeled as weak or unfit. "The 'suck it up, buttercup' mentality believes ... all you need to do is rub some dirt in it and get back out there." Thing is, the same line was used against SCBA, seat belts, turnouts and other safety equipment and practices that are saving firefighter lives. As with any injury, allowing this anguish to fester can lead to to unhealthy habits, behaviors and, sometimes, death.

The Impact of Mental Health Stigma in the Fire Service -- Fire Engineering

It's time to break that stigma. Speaking up is not weakness ... it is the strongest, healthiest thing you can do. 


Post-traumatic stress is an injury .. no different from a broken leg from a roof collapse or jacked up knees from years on the job 

If you suffer a physical injury, you don't think twice about seeking medical help. Mental and emotional injuries are no different.

Here are some signs you may be at risk of post-traumatic injury:

  • Recklessness/Impulsiveness: Erratic behavior or suddenly acting out of character.
  • Anger: Suppressed or explosive anger over seemingly minor issues, often directed at the individual’s family.
  • Isolation: Creating distance from fellow firefighters or losing interest in family activities at home.
  • Loss of confidence in skills and abilities: Losing the ability to complete normal tasks due to overwhelming emotional or personal issues (e.g. A seasoned firefighter who can’t remember how put an engine in gear to pump.)
  • Sleep Deprivation: Difficulty sleeping can indicate stress, anxiety, PTSI or several other emotional issues

If you're experiencing these, it might be a good idea to seek out some peer support or counseling.

There are also more acute symptoms that suggest an urgent need for help:

  • Alcohol/substance abuse
  • Marital problems
  • Domestic abuse
  • Suicidal thoughts

There is help for firefighters  who are struggling, whether with a single bad call or a lifetime of accumulated anguish. 

 Finding peer support -- an online clearinghouse of information about firefighter post-traumatic stress, along with links to peer support resources offered by dozens of individual fire departments.

Local peer support programs -- More and more individual departments and local unions are bringing peer support into the firehouse. Best resource is to contact your local union. We're compiling a list and will update with additional local information as it becomes available.

Significant Others and Spouses -- Program from the First Responder Support Network aimed at helping family members of firefighters deal with family disruptions and issues arising from the stresses of the job.

When you need more help

IAFF Center for Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery -- Comprehensive in-patient recovery center exclusively geared to firefighters. Treatment of substance abuse, post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI), depression and other psychological injuries linked to the job. (READ: "Firefighters helping others learn to help themselves" -- Washington Post)

West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat -- Recovery center geared toward firefighters and law enforcement. Small-group treatment with intensive debrief and counseling, driven by peer support and geared toward needs of first responders. 

First Alarm Wellness -- San Diego-based clinical and peer-support services, specializing in first responders and experience with post-traumatic stress in the fire service and the military.

Mountain Vista Farm -- Alcohol and substance abuse treatment facility, located in Sonoma County.

Dr. Duggan & Associates -- Multi-disciplinary counseling provider, working with Long Beach Fire Department to serve firefighter members.