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Firefighters carry a lot of gear to protect them from physical harm. Helmets guard against falling debris. A breathing apparatus is there to prevent smoke inhalation. Heavy coats and gloves keep them from being exposed to flames and extreme heat. However, even with all of the latest personal protective equipment, first responders still can be scarred and damaged by the work they do.

More departments across the country are recognizing the psychological impact of what these men and women encounter in the line of duty, and it’s about time. Studies have found that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may affect more than a third of all firefighters in the United States. This a figure that underscores the significance of their jobs and the importance of mental health for the industry as a whole.

Even if a responder does not fit the specific criteria for a PTSD diagnosis, firefighter anxiety and depression brought on by the job can have a substantial impact on their well-being and effectiveness on a call. Although these men and women willingly rush into danger to save lives, the stress they experience can take its toll. Responding to natural disasters, medical emergencies and traffic accidents frequently exposes them to traumatic sights that can be extremely difficult to process. This is why it is crucial for leaders to be able to identify the signs of PTSD in firefighters and offer avenues for treatment.

Understanding the Warning Signs

For a firefighter, PTSD symptoms can make it exceptionally difficult to do his or her job as effectively as needed. This is why co-workers should be on the lookout for specific signs that a colleague could be suffering from mental health issues. These can include:

  • Substance abuse: Many people having a hard time processing trauma may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate. Although this is enough of a problem and should be addressed no matter what, it also could be an indication that further intervention is warranted.
  • Irritability: If someone in your department seems quick to anger and unable to relax during down time, it’s possible this means there’s more going on than a bad mood. Those who suffer from PTSD often have a difficult time avoiding negative thoughts, which puts them at odds with themselves and others.
  • Apathy: These issues have a tendency to create changes in personality. Someone who once approached his or her work with enthusiasm may begin to slack. Interest in socializing and hobbies may disappear.
  • Distraction: Firefighters whose thoughts are clouded by depression or anxiety put themselves and their teammates at risk. A lack of focus on tasks could mean there’s something more serious happening than mere forgetfulness.
  • Physical symptoms: Anxiety affects more than your state of mind — it also leads to physical ailments such as headaches, labored breathing, pain and blurry vision. Any of these can severely impact a firefighter’s ability to work.

What Can Be Done to Help

The severity of these issues means it is imperative for departments to raise awareness about them. The earlier anyone suffering from these problems seeks treatment, the more effective it can be and the faster he or she can get back to 100%. Just as first responders watch each other’s backs in a dangerous situation, it takes everyone watching out for the earliest signs of stress and anxiety to keep their cohorts safe. Because one of the biggest obstacles to this is the stigma surrounding mental health, it is crucial for chiefs and other leaders to emphasize the importance of getting help as soon as possible.

Creating a Safer Environment

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