Harold A. Schaitberger
International Association of Firefighters
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a terrible affliction that affects fire fighters and paramedics at double the rate of the general population, and is an ever-growing problem in all ranks of the fire service – one in five fire fighters/paramedics will suffer from PTSD in the course of their career, and those with PTSD are six times more likely to commit suicide.
While it’s always existed, PTSD is just beginning to become more widely recognized as a major issue in the fire service. In fact, the hidden struggle with PTSD is one of the biggest threats to the health and security of our fire fighters.
Often, the stigma associated with asking for help prevents many in the fire service from admitting something is wrong. Even though trauma is a daily occurrence for fire fighters – most can recall with ease at least three horrific or tragic calls – they keep their behavioral health issues inside, worrying it will hurt their pride or reputation. But if left untreated, it only gets worse, destroying lives, families and careers.
So, we can no longer overlook or ignore behavioral health issues as “part of the job.” Whether it’s the unrelenting grip of PTSD, a life devastated by alcohol and drugs or the finality of suicide, we are losing too many of our own.
We have an obligation to make sure we provide every path possible to help these men and women recover from post-traumatic stress and the damage it can do to their lives and families. And every fire department has a role to play – from increasing awareness from day one at recruit school on behavioral health issues and offering coping and prevention strategies, to building peer support teams and providing continued education for fire fighters and fire chiefs.
While quality behavioral healthcare is available in many communities, it’s not always effective for helping fire fighters and paramedics. We know from our members that even those who are courageous enough to ask for help aren’t receiving treatment from mental health professionals who understand the unique culture and experiences of the fire service.
That’s why it’s important for fire fighters and the behavioral health community to work together in a systematic approach to not only fight stigma, but develop alternatives to the traditional behavioral health services and interventions available.
One such pioneer leading the fight to develop quality and culturally competent treatment for our fire fighters is Dr. George Lindenfeld, noted psychologist and accomplished author. In his fifth work, First Responders: Compassion Fatigue, Burnout, & PTSD, Dr. Lindenfeld dives deeply into the unique experiences of PTSD among the brave men and women who put their lives on the line every day to serve our communities.
Building on his expertise in treating active military and veteran populations who suffer from PTSD, Dr. Lindenfeld has developed a promising new intervention that uses sensory activation to reconsolidate traumatic memories without relying on the traditional talk therapy interventions that in some cases have been ineffective or even a deterrent for those seeking help.
I am grateful for Dr. Lindenfeld’s contribution to bring the critical issues of PTSD in the fire service to the forefront of our national and international awareness. We have an uphill battle to climb in addressing this crisis among our ranks, but when we work together to challenge versus accept what is, we are one step closer.