SPECIAL REPORT: Firefighters work to reduce stigma around mental health issues

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Mental illness in the fire service is growing at an alarming rate. In fact, more firefighters die each year by suicide than in the line of duty.

“You can’t hide an injury,” said Fire Chief Tom Jenkins with the Rogers Fire Department. “You can’t hide forever that you have cancer. But, you can hide a mental illness very well.”

The Rogers Fire Department participated in a nationwide study with the Center for Fire, Rescue & EMS Health Research (CFREHR). The study started in 2015 and was completed in 2019. It looked at the chronic exposure to trauma and what it does to people in the fire service.

“What we don’t do a good job quantifying, is the impact that the job has on firefighters over the course of their career in their mental state,” Jenkins said. “So, to know what the questions are we need to answer. And, to know what red flags we need to look for, that’s as important as anything we do.”

Sara Jahnke, the director of CFREHR, led the research. Jahnke said the fire service has a growing rate of mental illness for two main reasons, a cultural stigma against mental health care and untreated mental health disorders.

“I don’t think anyone can see death and destruction on an every day basis and not be affected by it in some way,” she said. “I think that being able to have those conversations and being honest with where you’re at with yourself and the people around you is important.”

The study is helping to change workplace culture and how we think about mental health.

“It has to be an organic process to help people develop these skills and resources and really develop a belief that they should do it,” Jahnke said. “That they should be tuned into how they are feeling and that it matters.”

“For the first time ever, we are having conversations about mental health,” Jenkins sad. “You can look back at fire academies, 10, 20, 30 years ago. There was no talk or chat in chapter and conversation about taking care of your mind.”

It’s a major step forward in breaking the stigma surrounding mental health in the fire service.

“We are not twiddling our thumbs,” Jenkins said. “If anything, we have our eyes open. We are listening. We are heavily relying on research to help us derive best practices. If we continue to have these conversations and recognize the problem than there is some home that we can do something better.”

You can learn more about the Center for Fire, Rescue & EMS Health Research here.

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