By Chris Fields
I learned a lot of important things in 31 years in the Fire Service to keep myself, my guys and girls protected so we can all go home. It wasn’t until about my 24th year did I learn what I feel was the most important thing, something that saved my life, my family, and my career. I learned that it was OK to ask for help!! People call us heroes; we say we are just doing our job. Whatever we choose to call it, we can’t be heroes or do our job for everybody else until we first do our job (be Heroes) taking care of ourselves and our families. There has always been such a stigma among the Fire Service, really all first responders about mental health. Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. It happens all too often with 1st responders as it did in my situation that we wait until there is a crisis before we reach out for help, sometimes forced to get help. I know it was that feeling of disgrace that kept me from reaching out, like I couldn’t handle my job, I couldn’t be the protector if I admitted I needed help.
All along I thought I could handle and overcome the feelings of despair, depression, and becoming recluse. I would tell myself that I was just going through a tough stretch, midlife crisis, any excuse I could think of to keep from admitting I was struggling emotionally, I had opened up my closet where I had stored all these emotions, and feelings of a 24 year career and they came down on top of me, I would get close to saying I can’t handle this and then that stigma of letting down my family and my profession would raise its ugly head.
It wasn’t until I finally had all I could take my personal life was in shamble which in turn was affecting my professional life, that I reached out. I started seeing a Counselor who specialized in dealing with 1st responders. After sometime of counseling including EMRD and a diagnosis of PTSD that things really started to improve. I went to a facility specifically for 1st responders dealing with PTSD. I heard many stories, from different perspectives from so many different 1st responders, but the theme was the same, the jobs we do and the things we experience have an effect on our mental health. For you it might not be a facility, it might not be one on one counseling, getting connected to the resources that match your needs is the goal.
Fortunately I see some positive change in dealing with 1st responders and Mental Health, people reaching out early instead of waiting until they are in crisis. I see the stigma being removed, people realizing it’s an injury more than a disorder. Injuries and can be treated and rehabbed and you can go back to work more healthy than before by learning to correct thinking errors, communication skills, self-care and how to be more self-aware, getting the tools you need to manage your mental health.
The message I want to get out to 1st responders across the nation, really not a message it’s a plea. Please reach out! Don’t wait until you feel like you are backed in to a corner and no way out, don’t wait until you disrespected and alienated your family, until you’ve disrespected your profession and the brothers and sisters you work with.
What I found most amazing, and I think it will be true for everybody, when you reach out, you will be overwhelmed by the arms that are reaching back to take you in!!