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Loving and Supporting a Firefighter With PTSD

The brotherhood of the fire service is unparalleled, understood only by members of this exclusive club.  Firefighters train alongside each other, rise through the ranks, and entrust our lives to each other’s hands. We understand without explanation what other firefighters are experiencing, even when located halfway around the world.  We know the rush of adrenaline when the pager goes off, comprehend feelings of pride and accomplishment, and understand the precious fragility and unfairness of life.  The Brotherhood shares victory and triumph, while also shouldering sorrow and pain.  Rarely discussed, but with an equally vested interest are the significant others of our fellow brave men and women. 

When you wed a firefighter, you marry into the “brotherhood” and get everything that comes along with it.  You are awakened in the middle of the night when the pager sounds, you take part in installation dinners, proudly watch them marching in parades, and begrudgingly send them off to training.  In addition to these logistics, you have a front-row seat to the roller coaster of emotions and feelings that are brought home with them. Spouses are in the unique position to comfort and support firefighters from the tapestry of stressors and traumas that are encountered on a daily basis.

Firefighters must process and comprehend what the senses have ingested, exploding from the smell of smoke, the sound of sirens, and the incomprehensible sights of car accidents, burn victims, and violent deaths.  The spouses are often the ones regaled with stories about hosing off 9-11 victims or searching the interstate for a missing thumb. We hear about responding to the train station for another “jumper,” or about watching an individual take their final breath while being extricated from a car. 

Post-traumatic stress is a psychological condition prompted by a traumatic event, characterized by relentless anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts.  These symptoms may arise within one month, or within several years of the trauma and negatively impacts relationships, friendships, occupation, and normal functioning.  Trauma is inherent in a firefighter’s work, as their job is interwoven with stress and peril, making firefighters extremely susceptible to post-traumatic stress. 

Unfortunately, mental health has been stigmatized for centuries, dating back to ancient times when it was believed that evil spirits overcame those who have a mental illness.  This coupled with machismo inherent in the fire services industry has made it difficult for firefighters to discuss mental health issues openly.  There is a lack of research in regards to the mental health of firefighters, for these very reasons. Though over the last several years we are finally seeing studies on just how pertinent these issues may be.   Perchance firefighters are fearful of being labeled with post-traumatic stress, as they could be viewed as weak and cowardly, or potentially be passed up for an officer position.

Nevertheless, firefighters need support and guidance at home while suffering from a post-traumatic stress.  Spouses can assist their loved ones in the following ways:

  • Create a calm, grounding environment: Individuals with post-traumatic stress generally feel unsafe in their environments and are easily triggered by stimuli.  Creating a quiet and relaxing home environment can assist firefighters in handling calm, secure, and grounded.

  • Do not pressure and accept: Traumas are terrifying, and the after-effects are genuine.  A firefighter must never be compelled to “just get over it,” or to talk about the traumatic episode when they are not ready.  Be attentive to a firefighter and assist them in feeling accepted and loved. 

  • Listen and support: Pay attention and listen when a firefighter wants to talk.  Show interest and be mindful to refrain from judgment. Sometimes an individual with post-traumatic stress needs to rehash the trauma multiple times as a mechanism of healing.  If a firefighter wants to repeat details or to metaphorically return to the scene of the trauma, allow them to do so.

  • Be normal: Individuals who have suffered an injury have had their entire lives disrupted.  It is essential to carry out everyday activities and to engage a firefighter in their usual hobbies and interests, which have no relation to the trauma.

  • Focus on trust and safety: A firefighter would benefit from structure and predictability, especially during a time where they feel that the world is a perilous place.  Focus on implementing structure, boundaries, and routine, while keeping promises to establish dependability and security.

  • Educate yourself and understand triggers: Post-traumatic stress is distinguished by intrusive thoughts, triggers, and flashbacks.  It is essential to educate yourself about post-traumatic stress disorder and have a plan in case a trigger or flashback occurs.

  • Understanding anger: Post-traumatic stress can be typified by anger, irritability, and mood fluctuations. It is often the case that a firefighter might have difficulty sleeping, leading to more fatigue and petulance. Understand that a firefighter’s anger may be an expression of vulnerability, grief, and culpability. Attempt to stay calm and allow a firefighter space.

  • Seek professional help: Seeking help from a mental health professional or trauma programs can provide one with support and coping techniques in addition to assisting them with processing and getting past the trauma.

  • Be patient: Understand that although trauma can happen in mere seconds, getting past it could take a lot longer.  Be patient with your firefighter and understand that setbacks are likely.  Let your loved one be your guide and look for indications how you can best support them.  

 

Seldom discussed is the sisterhood of spouses rallying around firefighter spouses.  Similar to the brotherhood, this sisterhood is strong and a symbolic rite of passage. It is tough to watch your spouse running into a burning building when everyone else is fleeing from it.  It is paradoxical that they are guaranteed to experience stress and trauma on the job, and yet, their safety and returns home are never guaranteed.  Nevertheless, if your firefighter spouse develops post-traumatic stress disorder, take comfort in the fact that there are many things that you could do to assist them in their recovery.

 

Cressman, A.  ( 2014, July 15).  Mental Health:  Tracing the History of Stigma.  Retrieved from https://www.google.com/amp/s/museumofhealthcare.wordpress.com/2014/...

 

Mayo Clinic Staff.  (2018, July 6).  Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stres...

 

Smith, M., & Robinson, L. (2018, September).  Helping Someone with PTSD-Helping a Loved One While Taking Care of Yourself.  Retrieved from https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma...

MEET 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 and currently is Director of Media & Communications with Institute 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. Mark also published his first book “Marketing Playbook for Social Media” to basically help companies and non-profits learn how to spread their message on social media.  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 mark@360wellness.org

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