The PTSD Plague: How Firefighters can Recognize – and Conquer – this Debilitating Condition

Courtesy of Treatment Solutions

Brave. Heroic. Strong. These words define a firefighter. Inhuman. Immortal. Immune. These words, however, don’t.

Firefighters are some of the most courageous men and women imaginable, but each and every day they’re also at an extremely high risk of PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD can have such an impact on firefighters – and in turn, those around them – that it can become emotionally, mentally and physically crippling. In this article, we’ll discuss PTSD, its warning signs and what you can do if you or someone you know is a firefighter or public safety officer who may be suffering.

In the Line of Fire

The Mayo Clinic defines Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as, “a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event.” Anxiety, which is often associated with PTSD, can be caused by any kind of trauma, such as an accident, personal injury, being the victim of a crime, or experiencing war.

Obviously (and literally), firefighters are in the line of fire – day in, day out. It’s their job to be surrounded by what most of us consider “terrifying events” – that’s essentially what being a firefighter entails. And that’s exactly why PTSD has such a common occurrence in this field, exemplified in some statistics below.

Many firefighters who suffer from PTSD develop family and work problems because of the symptoms, including:

  • Nightmares
  • Daily stresses and anxieties
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hallucinations or delusions
  • Memory loss
  • Numbness toward emotions
  • Panic attacks
  • Feeling guilty, hopeless, or shameful
  • Sudden flashbacks

Treatment Solutions’ Senior Vice President of Business Development and retired firefighter Mike Blackburn told us about a fellow firefighter who eventually left the unit completely, due to PTSD. Drug and alcohol abuse is also a common result, which can have a significantly negative impact on health, relationships, job performance, and beyond.

Scary statistics

  • reported, “among 8,487 firefighters who enrolled in the FDNY WTC Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program, 12% screened positive for probable PTSD symptoms in the first six months after 9/11.” Public safety officers faced tragedy head-on as they cleared the bodies and wreckage, including many of their own colleagues, thus causing anxiety and/or the use of alcohol and drugs to numb the pain.
  • Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Dr. Marc Lougassi, who is also a firefighter, conducted a recent study in the same realm, and found that “24% of active firefighters in Israel suffer from full PTSD, 67% display partial PTSD, while only 9% showed no symptoms” – 90% of active Israeli firefighters have some form of PTSD. This particular study has been well publicized, and is helping to increase the issue’s overall awareness.
  • According to the New York Times, the number of New York City firefighters and emergency medical service workers being treated for alcohol and drug abuse in 2004 was more than 50% higher than it was in 2003, a percentage increase related to a higher rate of PTSD cases.

Breaking the stigma

Drug addicts and alcoholics are often too ashamed of their addictions to ask for help – and the same goes for those with mental illness disorders. Many firefighters and public safety officers battling PTSD hide their affliction, because they’re the ones who are supposed to be the strongest and most unbreakable.

Staying silent is the worst way to go, and only leads to further mental and physical health issues. After Jack Slavinski, Philadelphia firefighter and former marine, committed suicide last year, his wife and colleagues spoke out, saying they believed Jack had suffered with PTSD for seven years. ABC News quoted Francine Roberts, a New Jersey-based clinical psychologist who treats firefighters and police officers. “’It's considered a weakness to … ask for help…’ She accommodates her patients' desire for absolute confidentiality by seeing them in an office with a private parking lot and rear entrance.”

Finding help

We want to open up the lines of communication and spread not only the awareness surrounding PTSD, but also the hope for a solution. Finding a solid support system that works as a reassuring presence and discussing PTSD coping strategies, along with utilizing the Clinical Incident Stress Management (CISM) teams, are wonderful tools in staving off the risks.

Mike Blackburn said, “The CISM teams are the best service available, along with strong leadership from the fire service making sure their troops get what they need when these tragic incidents occur. Immediate help at the time of the incident is imperative, and following up at the second meeting should be mandated so that team members can watch for those that may be seriously affected.”

In our next installment, we’ll discuss CIS (or Critical Incident Stress), which, unlike PTSD, is a shorter-term affliction that affects many firefighters, and CISM teams and how their support can minimize the likelihood of PTSD.

Note: The NVFC offers a Member Assistance Program through Treatment Solutions. The toll-free, confidential hotline provides immediate assistance for you and your family members with issues disrupting work, life, or overall. Information is available on the Members-Only section of the NVFC web site under Member Benefits.