by DAVID WIKLANSKI
Among the early references TO what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was that described by Herodotus in 440 B.C. He reported that Epizelus was stricken with blindness in the Battle of Marathon that continued throughout his life although there was no apparent physical reason to explain it. The primary factors in the loss of his vision were said to be the fright he experienced and witnessing his friend’s death. PTSD has been observed over the centuries among soldiers in battle and individuals who have experienced traumatic events-natural disasters, horrific accidents, or other tragedies. The term PTSD arose out of research on Vietnam War veterans, Holocaust survivors, and other trauma victims; it first appeared in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III, 1980).
Calling the Mayday
The fire service prides itself on taking care of our own. Most of our profession is built around a team concept. No matter what seems to be going on, there is always a fellow firefighter available to help out. Need help moving furniture? Call one of our brethren. Got spare tickets to a sporting event? Call one of our brethren. Need a ride home because your vehicle broke down? Call one of our brethren.
But why is it that when firefighters have a mental health problem and can’t handle it alone, we still try to keep it to ourselves? The answer lies in the culture of the fire service. We are problem solvers. Don’t know whom to call to fix a problem? Send the fire department; let the firefighters figure it out. But this works only with external problems. Emergency response, community relations, EMS, and technical rescue aren’t problems for us.
But when one of our own has a personal issue, who can that member call for help? Can that person turn to his fellow firefighters as he would for any other need? He should be able to, but the stigma attached to mental illness doesn’t allow firefighters to ask for that help. We all know about the firehouse culture and mentality. Most of the jokes and the laughter come from breaking someone’s chops. Although it’s a great way to develop esprit de corps, does it allow members to feel that they can share their personal issues? Or do they feel that such a disclosure would expose them to ridicule and make them the big joke around the firehouse for the next month or so? This mindset forces firefighters to keep their emotions bottled up and to feel as though they can’t turn to their brethren for the support they need to get through their current crisis.
In most firehouses, asking for help is perceived as a weakness. On the fireground, when you call a Mayday, you know we will move mountains to come to rescue you. But if you have a mental health issue, you won’t call for help. That’s why we need a “Psychological Mayday” for anyone in need to call for help. It should be just as acceptable as calling a Mayday on the fireground. If we can’t turn to our fellow firefighters for support, to whom can we turn?
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