MnFIRE Emotional Wellness Support
Three of former St. Paul firefighter Brian Cristofono’s colleagues – and friends – took their own lives, and Cristofono himself attempted suicide twice. PTSD cost him his marriage and, ultimately, his job. The City of St. Paul denied his disability claim, stating that unless there was a physical injury associated with a fire, PTSD could not exist. Cristofono was forced to retire and now lobbies to make it easier for firefighters to claim PTSD as a job-related injury.
Scott Geiselhart, with the Frazee fire department, turned to alcohol and eventually methamphetamine to deal with his PTSD. Talk therapy has helped Scott cope with his trauma and kick his addictions. His department now has debriefings after every traumatic call to help firefighters work through what they experienced.
An abundance of recent research pertaining to firefighter health shows that those in the fire service experience much higher rates of mental health challenges than the general population – particularly in the areas of sleep disorders, depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation/action. In fact, research suggests that there is an association between the number of years of duty in the fire service and higher levels of suicidal ideation/action.
The on-the-job bravery of firefighters is legendary, but that doesn’t mean they have to suffer in silence when facing occupational stress and emotional challenges – ignorance and lack of support from the fire service often makes emotional health concerns worse over time.
Dr. R John Sutherland, with North Memorial Medical Center, said he often sees firefighters experiencing something he refers to as a “hero complex” – if they go get help, then they’re not strong enough. He says most firefighters can recall at least three traumatic events, but it’s the failure to talk about those memories that creates a dangerous and dark feedback loop.
National standards (such as NFPA 1500) recommend that all firefighters have access to behavioral health services, yet many departments don’t have programs in place due to budget realities and other priorities. An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is often provided through employer health plans, but because 93 percent of Minnesota firefighters are non-career, EAPs are often not available to them because of their part-time status. In addition, it’s important to ensure that EAP assistance is firefighter-specific and aware of the unique challenges they face, rather than generic.
Mental and emotional health is as important as physical health for firefighters, as a proactive mental health program can save fire departments significant time and money in the long run (not to mention the lives of brothers and sisters in the fire service). Some of the fundamental and extremely important pieces of behavioral health programs that can help save lives include:
- Regular mental health or behavioral health education
- Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
- Easy access to counseling services – paid for by the department, local union or individual’s health plan
- Formal mental health “fitness for duty” examinations
- Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) debriefings
- Family Support Night
- Peer Support team
Also, non-clinical interventions – such as peer support – can be an effective starting point for assessing and managing firefighters’ emotional stress levels without causing additional stress, concern or stigma. Firefighters see and experience traumatic situations on a regular basis, many of which would be unbearable for an ordinary citizen. We must end the stigma attached to mental health challenges and ensure firefighters have an outlet for talking about and processing traumatic experiences.