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What you should know as a firefighter about PTSD

Most everyone these days is familiar with the acronym PTSD: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Military personnel Are coming back in record numbers suffering from this disorder. PTSD was first added to the DSM by the American Psychiatric Association¹. With the recent wars and military activity, the number of those diagnosed with PTSD has dramatically increased. What we realize now is that PTSD is not limited to those who have served in battle. There is another large category of people who are rapidly showing signs of PTSD: First Responders. Emergency Medical Services, Firefighters, and Law Enforcement officers are, for the first time in the history of these professions, coming to terms with the fact that they are not untouchable or immune.

As a Firefighter, you train for all varieties of scenarios. So usually, it is the worst case. The mentality being, if you are prepared for the worst case, then anything else should be easier to handle. Hours spent in a classroom, studying feverishly for those certifications and licenses, walking onto “the” job, completing fire school, and finally being assigned to a house. These steps are shared throughout the various roles filled by Firefighters. Also, an event or series of events can occur at any point that can trigger the responses and send that firefighter into PTSD. It could be the very first day on the job. Maybe on a ride-along before even being hired. Perhaps you are a 20-year veteran on the trucks. Whether it is one single moment in time or a collection of events, PTSD can be experienced across the board.

What defines a traumatic event? Think about what we as firefighters are witness to, sometimes on a daily basis, and sometimes even multiple times in one day. Shootings, stabbings, assaults, abuse, murder victims, vehicle crashes, equipment injuries, fires, robberies, medical emergencies, overdoses, suicides. The list goes on. Firefighters often see people at their very worst moments in life. While we may walk away and ask each other nonchalantly what’s for dinner, those experiences must be addressed and dealt with at some point. They will demand it. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of PTSD is essential. Intervention and treatment are crucial to helping the firefighter to achieve balance. Some signs and symptoms include: 

Constant anxious state
Flashbacks
Aversion to situations
A physiological response such as increased heart rate Anger management issues Difficulty sleeping
Alterations in personality
Depression In Toronto, work was underway to raise awareness of government officials to enact laws that would help provide more training and treatment options for the firefighters². This needs to be made a priority in every department around the nation. For years’ departments have addressed the importance of quality training, proper equipment, maintaining professionalism, and in more recent years the importance of physical health. Acknowledging the presence of PTSD in Firefighters is necessary to remove the stigma associated with seeking mental health help. 

So you are a Firefighter. You have PTSD. You feel your life is entirely and unalterably changed. Also, to a degree, it is changed. Each day we wake up and go through our day. When we lay our heads down to sleep, the experiences of our day have changed us. They may be small, almost unnoticeable changes or something drastic. However, we will not wake up the next day the same person we were the day before. One cannot move through this life and remain untouched. Being diagnosed with PTSD is NOT a death sentence. With help, support, and changes, you can still like, even love, your life. PTSD can be like a thief. It can rob you of the things you hold most dear. Your family, your career, your confidence and peace of mind. However, don’t give up! Reach out to family, friends, coworkers. Don’t try to navigate this alone.

Seeking help is the first step. Whether it be through your work or a community program or church, ask for help. It is not hopeless. After seeking help, it will be essential to make sure changes are in place that will help you be the healthiest you possible. Setting up positive outlets to release energy, frustrations, and stress is vital to any Firefighters long-term health. If your method of relaxing includes hitting up the neighborhood bar or eating at the all-night buffet, you are setting yourself up for struggles. Drinking can lead to depression and a host of other issues. Weight gain and a sedentary lifestyle can lead to depression, heart disease, and diabetes. Dealing with PTSD is going to be one of your hardest battles ever fought; adding negative coping mechanisms into that battle will make your struggle even more difficult. Look for positive ways to deal with the daily stress of your job. Running, working out regularly with a friend, taking a class on a hobby interest, or volunteering in your community are all positive ways to release stress. Just remember that most importantly, you are NOT alone. It may seem that way, but you have brothers and sisters around you that understand what you go through on the clock. They know what it is like to have horrible scenes replay in your head. Don’t fight alone; you don’t have to.

¹Friedman, M. PTSD History, and Overview. PTSD: National Center for PTSD. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/PTSD-overview/ptsd-overview.asp

²Connor, K. (2016, August 16). First Responder PTSD Similar to Combat Veterans: Report. Toronto Sun. Retrieved from http://www.torontosun.com/2016/08/16/first-responder-ptsd-similar-t...

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Lamplugh is a fourth-generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester (PA) Fire Company. He was the Chief Marketing Officer of 360 Wellness Inc/Premier Wellness Solutions and currently managing business development with theInstitute for Responder Wellness and Deer Hollow Recovery. Lamplugh is also nationally recognized in Crisis Stress Intervention through the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Lamplugh hosts his own talk show called “Firefighter Wellness Radio” with Fire Engineering. He has helped thousands of firefighters, police officers, veterans, EMS personnel, and civilians nationwide find help for addiction, alcoholism, PTSD, and mental health support. Mark has been chosen as one of the Board of Directors at One World For Life (To head up Communication and the Health & Safety section). He can be reached for comment markl@deerhollowrecovery.com

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