This article is not to diminish the effects of post-traumatic stress on our brothers or sisters but to bring about an awareness that many issues play a role in the lives of our first responders. A role we, the fire service, need to recognize and deal with because this is not a United States fire service but a global issue.
As a retired fire captain from the north-west suburbs of Chicago, a licensed counsellor and founder of Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA-www.ffbha.org) we have been tracking firefighter, EMS and now dispatcher suicides since 2010. We track career, volunteer, military and wild-land firefighters who die by suicide.
Prior to Covid FBHA was travelling over 100,000 air miles a year across the US and Canada presenting educational workshops on PTSD, suicide awareness, addictions, depression and other behavioural health issues including relationships.
Yes, we have all seen calls our minds will never forget. So many struggle from the memories of these horrific events, yet in collecting our data of over 1,603 FF and EMS suicides (as of 4 February 2021) we found that marital/family relationships were the number-one known reason for our brothers and sisters killing themselves.
By putting my 26 years in the fire service as both a career and volunteer and combining my counselling degree plus interviewing and presenting to thousands of first responders, I came upon a term I believe in. This term is called Cognitive Disconnect.
Now psychologists define this as ‘the experience of feeling distant and detached from one’s sense of identity, thought stream, and general cognitive processes’ (6 February 2020 – psychonautwiki.org › wiki ›). I describe it simply as making decisions based on the emotions we are currently going through and throwing reality out of our thoughts. As an example, as a firefighter we are told by people in our community we are strong, brave, courageous, heroic etc. Yet, you get home to the person who loves you the most but doesn’t put you on a pedestal and during an argument maybe your anger creates a cognitive-disconnect moment and you start shouting ‘why can’t you treat me like the public does?’ This anger builds and blinds you as to reality and in that moment, you might kill your loved one and then yourself. FBHA has tracked 62 murder suicides in our validated data. Perhaps the emotion is guilt, jealousy, an addiction or depression. Either way we base our decisions of killing ourselves during these cognitive-disconnect moments.
Our loved ones, whether spouses, partners, family members or friends, are our greatest support base. They will always see us better than we will see ourselves. Our need to belong in our society is a humanistic value we cannot deny. Now take that value and include our circle called the fire service. We belong to a worldwide community of firefighters which is probably unmatched by any other brotherhood or sisterhood of men and women. The only other society would be the military. Yet, for all of this talk of a brother and sisterhood our families are the core to our existence. So, when FBHA hears how a firefighter killed themself due to a divorce or relationship break-up it strengthens my belief that rejection is an issue we find very difficult to swallow. We then allow cognitive disconnect to base our decision that life has no value and that is why so many kill themselves.
The good news is there is hope! That’s a powerful word isn’t it? We, as firefighters, can start making changes today… yes, as you read this you can make changes in your personal life with your loved ones, especially your children. When you start to practice ‘Internal Size-Up’ you will be able to begin to understand your emotions and how they play a role in your personal and professional life.
So, you ask, what is Internal Size-Up? It is a form of communication, which unfortunately most people need help with. The art of talking and listening! Internal Size-Up, a phrase coined by FBHA, is the daily practice of asking ourselves ‘Why am I feeling this way?’ or ‘Why am I acting this way?’ One of the best things we can do for ourselves is to listen to others. They see us better than we will ever see ourselves. It has been a long-standing tradition that when asked how we are doing a common response is ‘I’m good’. Let me give you some advice: those days are over. In 11 years of helping our brothers and sisters we have seen way too many hurting due to PTSD, depression, addictions, sleep deprivation, relationship issues, stress/anxiety and, yes, suicides. As human beings we are accountable for our own actions. We all either need to speak up when struggling or learn to walk the walk with our co-workers instead of mocking them or treating them like they are diseased.
Communication is the art of listening as well. Please listen to the words from those who love and know us. When they say ‘you have changed’ then take it to heart. When a love one wants to talk, don’t try to solve their issues, just listen. It takes practice. You get this practice by listening to yourselves through the daily Internal Size-Up.
This is our greatest opportunity in the fire service to make changes both in our work place as well as within ourselves. The amount of attention going towards behavioural health is incredible. It wasn’t like this in 2010 when FBHA was founded. Remember, change takes time, it takes patience, it takes support from everyone, but the payoff is fantastic for those who struggle. They can seek help and not be ridiculed or disciplined. They will be able to seek help so they might not only have a great career but a better life.
For more information, go to www.ffbha.org