The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in the United States specifies that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) “develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.”
Their website further states:
“Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened, even when they are not in danger.”
Symptoms of trauma-related mental disorders have been documented since the time of the ancient Greeks.
In the first half of the twentieth century, during the world wars, the condition was known under various terms including “shell shock” and “combat neurosis.”
The term “post-traumatic stress disorder” came into use in the 1970s in large part due to the diagnoses of U.S. military veterans of the Vietnam War.
Although many of us may hear the term in association with military veterans, PTSD can develop in any person after they have been exposed to a traumatic event, such as sexual assault, traffic collisions, child abuse and of course a number of the incidents firefighters may encounter as part of their daily job.
PTSD symptoms may include disturbing thoughts, stressful feelings, or bad dreams related to the traumatic event.
Individuals with PTSD are at a higher risk of suicide and intentional self-harm.
PTSD symptoms generally begin within the first three months, but sometimes may not begin until years later. Often, an individual with PTSD avoids either trauma-related thoughts and emotions or discussion of the traumatic event and may even have amnesia of the event.
While it is common to have symptoms after any traumatic event, these must persist to a sufficient degree for longer than one month after the trauma to be classified as PTSD.
The traumatic event may haunt the individual through intrusive, recurrent recollections and dissociative episodes, such as flashbacks and nightmares.
Drug abuse and alcohol abuse commonly co-occur with PTSD.
FIREFIGHTERS AND PTSD
Make no mistake about it, a firefighter’s job requires that he or she get upfront and personal with human tragedy. Whether it’s rescuing individuals from a burning building or confronting the aftermath of a fatal vehicle accident, the very nature of being a first responder is helping people on the worst days of their lives — or even in the last moments of their existence.
For firefighters contending with PTSD, recognizing the symptoms for themselves is the first step towards reducing their burden.
Especially since the cultural tradition of highlighting the courageous and even “heroic” personnel of the fire services may foster a tendency for firefighters to suppress the unique challenges involved with their job. Regardless that firefighters may become just as traumatized as any other human being witnessing distressing or horrifying experiences.
There are various treatments available to firefighters, but the biggest hurdle is often any individual’s decision to seek such help. Part of that decision process would include having personal confidence that a firefighter could receive such help without any negative repercussions.
This can be supported by fire departments recognizing the importance of this type of support, bolstered by policy and procedures that facilitate such assistance.
Of course, compassion and protecting privacy would be fundamental. Departmental procedures need to integrate confidential appointments with medical professionals, along with local programs to reduce any unspoken stigma associated with PTSD, and furthermore, acknowledge that it is a predictable risk of the job.
In brief, firefighters must believe in the protection of their local department, since the one commonality of PTSD is the feeling that their environment is essentially unsafe and potentially threatening.
Nevertheless, the first step along a path towards reducing the impact of PTSD begins with any individual firefighter personally acknowledging to themselves the burden they carry along with making a decision to do something about it.