It’s a cruel irony that those most likely to help others can find it difficult to help themselves. Involvement in a traumatic event is a regular part of the job for most Canadian first responders, yet many find it a struggle to talk about the effects such stressful situations can have on their emotions. Sadly, this inability to seek help can lead to depression, PTSD and in the worst case, suicide.

“We have to create a new normal where it’s okay to talk about mental and behavioral health.”

The British Columbia Professional Fire Fighters Association is one organisation looking to make it easier for their members to talk about mental health issues and reach out for help. “Mental health is a very important subject. After a traumatic call, the culture used to be to suck it up and move on,” explains Steve Farina, Health and Safety Rep and member of the Coquitlam Fire Fighters. “But we realize now that if you have a lack of support and resources, seeing so many traumas can boil over into PTSD and even extreme measures like suicide.”

Seeking help

While there are some resources in place for firefighters to turn to, one of the biggest hurdles is getting members to feel comfortable asking for help. There is often a stigma associated with expressing emotions, especially in a culture as historically macho as firefighting. “We need to eliminate the stigma….it takes real courage to ask for help,” notes Farina.

“We have to create a new normal where it’s okay to talk about mental and behavioral health,” says Surrey Fire Fighters Association President Mike McNamara. “People have to feel comfortable saying they have an emotional injury. Because emotional injuries are no different than a leg or head injury. Feelings are a part of our body — just a very complicated part.”

Education and awareness

This issue has particular significance to McNamara who lost two friends and fellow firefighters to suicide recently. Both he and Farina emphasize the importance education and awareness play in preventing such tragedies. “I’m a captain now and responsible for my crew’s physical and mental well-being. I need to recognize signs and symptoms and be able to do mental first aid with my crew when needed. We all need this training,” says Farina. “We need people to feel like going to a counsellor is like going to a dentist,” adds McNamara. “It needs to feel normal.”