You’re a firefighter, and you have PTSD

June 25, 2014

It happened again. As you bolt upright in bed, your heart is racing and your sheets are soaked with sweat. You scream out just as you realize you’re having another nightmare . . . reliving the real-life traumatic scene you experienced at work the week before. You’re a firefighter, and you have PTSD.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition brought on after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic or disturbing event. Classified as an anxiety disorder, diagnosis occurs when certain symptoms persist such as recurring flashbacks, avoidance or numbing of memories of the event, and increased emotional arousal. Because of the stressful nature of their jobs, first responders are often at greater risk of experiencing PTSD than the average person. In the general population, the average rates of PTSD are 8% for men and 20% for women. Among firefighters, rates range between 7% and 37%.

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Historically, firefighters have been characterized as brave and stoic so PTSD wasn’t a topic that was discussed or even recognized in the past. Now, with the increased public awareness of the importance of mental health issues, PTSD has moved out of the shadows. While some firefighters realize they are suffering from PTSD and get the behavioral health assistance they need, others may not and should be encouraged to seek help. Here are some symptoms that could help identify potential PTSD sufferers:

  • Anger and irritability
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Guilt, shame and self-blame
  • Depression and feelings of hopelessness
  • Feelings of mistrust, betrayal and loneliness

If you or a firefighter you know are experiencing any of the above symptoms on a consistent basis, there are ways to get help. To address the growing need for behavioral health support and resources, the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) has launched Share the Load™, a support program for fire and EMS. As part of that program, the NVFC has partnered with American Addiction Centers to create the Fire/EMS Helpline, a free, confidential helpline available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to assist firefighters, EMTs and their families. Callers receive compassionate, non-judgmental support for a variety of behavioral health issues, such as PTSD, addiction, depression, suicide prevention, stress or anxiety, critical incidents, relationship issues, or other issues affecting their work or personal life. The helpline is available at 1-888-731-FIRE (3473). There are also online resources available for fire departments and individuals at www.nvfc.org/help.

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