Sponsored by TenCate Protective Fabrics
By Sarah Calams for FireRescue1 BrandFocus
For many first responders, this year’s COVID-19 pandemic has been especially trying, impacting responders’ mental health at every level.
Fire departments have taken new approaches to keep their crews healthy and safe, including additional PPE on suspected COVID-19 calls, daily screening for potential symptoms and temperature checks.
And, while the physical health and safety of our nation’s first responders should always remain top priority, their mental health remains equally important – especially as the pandemic continues through the latter half of 2020.
However, this mentality starts at the top. To ensure that firefighters can adjust and get through challenging times, fire department leaders must support mental health initiatives and find ways to help crew members take care of themselves.
Unsure of where to start? Here are five ways you can help your crews grow and maintain mental resilience during the pandemic and beyond.
1. Realize it’s OK to not feel OK
While building mental resilience is key, understanding it’s OK to not be OK is even more important.
This year, the International Association of Fire Chiefs launched its campaign, “If You Don’t Feel Well, Don’t Make It Your Farewell.” The campaign, which focuses on curbing the number of cardiac-related incidents facing fire and EMS personnel, is a great example of how the fire service is educating and changing the culture of denial throughout the profession.
This campaign could easily be tweaked and adopted at fire departments as a mental health initiative – driving home the importance of shedding the stigma of mental and behavioral health in the fire service.
We don’t want firefighters to ignore chest tightness and shortness of breath, because it’s a precursor to a potential heart attack. Likewise, we don’t want firefighters to push aside their mental health issues, which can lead to depression, PTSD and suicide.
2. Model healthy behavior – from the top – and check in with your peers
We must stop telling firefighters to “suck it up.”
The best way to teach firefighters this is to demonstrate it – starting at the leadership level.
For example, instead of just holding an awareness class and presenting the facts to your crews, make it personal. At some point, every firefighter, including those in a leadership position, has struggled one way or another.
Leaders must be able to share their experiences and model vulnerability, focusing on how they struggled and were able to get through it. Opening up, sharing similar experiences and keeping a pulse on your crew’s mental health is key. Without this support, firefighters can feel like they’re alone and will be unable to find healthy ways to rebuild themselves mentally.
3. Good habits promote good physical and mental health
Diet and nutrition play a large role in your physical and mental health. After all, what you eat often affects how you feel. It’s easy to grab a quick bite to eat at your local fast food restaurant, but that doesn’t make it healthy.
Try packing a lunchbox with meals and snacks that are easy to pack and require little to no preparation, including:
- A bag of trail mix or nuts.
- Fruit (apples, bananas, oranges, grapes).
- A peanut butter and jelly sandwich or deli wrap.
- A protein shake or bar.
Additionally, good sleep habits not only improve your health and safety, but research shows sleep duration and the quality of sleep can have an impact on mood changes, chronic health problems and mental illness. Getting a good night’s rest (an average of seven hours of sleep per night) is no longer a recommendation – it’s imperative.
4. Adopt simple practices for stress reduction
Mindfulness, which is the practice of paying attention on purpose in the present moment, has been shown to help reduce stress, anxiety and depression.
For instance, the U.S. National Guard performed an eight-week mindfulness-based stress resilience training where service members learned about mindfulness, its importance and how to make the skill a lifelong habit.
Members who completed the training experienced a 50% reduction in depression, PTSD and anxiety.
Another skill firefighters can practice and have in their back pocket in case of emergency is the ability to breathe deeply and purposefully.
Navy SEALs use box breathing, where they breathe for four, hold for four, breathe out for four and hold for another four. This type of breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, turning off the fight-or-flight response.
This type of breathing technique can help firefighters stay calm in dangerous situations, allowing them to make better, well-informed decisions.
5. Reach out for help when you need it
Reaching out is not a sign of weakness – it’s a sign of strength.
The only real way to make a change and ensure that firefighters feel better is by making sure your crew members understand they can reach out for help when they need it.
More importantly, fire service leaders must find and provide their crews with the appropriate resources. Try starting with an employee assistance program or peer support group. There’s also organizations specifically aimed at first responder-oriented mental health advocacy and education, like the Code Green Campaign.
Seeking mental health assistance
If you fall and break your arm while on a fire scene, you go the emergency department, get it set and put in a cast to heal. There is no negative stigma attached to this type of injury – it was, very likely, just an accident.
Seeking assistance for your mental health should be no different. Firefighters who seek and need assistance need to know their peers and mentors have their back – no stigma attached. Without support from the top down – and among peers – depression, PTSD and suicide rates among firefighters will only continue to rise at an already alarming rate.
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