By Mark Lamplugh
During my trip to Fire Rescue International, the question came up: “We know the help is out there, but how do we get guys to ask for it?” This is the major question plaguing the fire service when it comes to mental health and substance abuse issues. It’s easy to see why these are difficult issues for firefighters to come forward on. Many of us in the fire service are near-paralyzed by the fear of being looked upon as a failure or someone who can’t handle the job. We would rather die than admit we have a problem – and oftentimes we do.
A lot of the reasons firefighters won’t reach out have to do with stigma of addiction and mental health issues. When it comes to substance abuse and mental health, we in the fire service have plenty of negative opinions to go around. And through these opinions, the stigma around mental health issues or substance abuse grows. Often, it’s just a case of fearing what we don’t know. Many of us just don’t understand mental health and substance abuse problems well enough, so one of the ways to tackle the stigma is to educate, to start bringing in people who can teach us what substance abuse means. How does it happen? How can we protect ourselves, and how can we help others? What contributes to good mental health, and how can we support it?
One fear that prevents firefighters from asking for help is a fear of losing the job. For most of us, firefighting isn’t just a job but an identity. We wear the T-shirts, get the tattoos, and collect the memorabilia. So it’s not surprising that we will hide our problem until we self-destruct. Because the fear of losing our job is the biggest hurdle, it makes sense to start changing zero tolerance and similar threat-based policies. Zero tolerance policies do not stop addiction, they just make people hide it more. A policy shift from a position of zero tolerance to one of practical understanding would put departments in a better position to provide help. Employers who get behind struggling firefighters may be able to save both careers and lives.
From a practical standpoint, departments invest a ton of money in training that struggling firefighter, and over the course of his or her career that same firefighter has accrued added value through experience. Why wouldn’t it make sense to protect this investment by enabling and encouraging treatment for something that is treatable? Everyone should be offered at least one chance to receive help…Period.
Another way we in the fire service can help is to start supporting our fellow brothers and sisters without ridicule. And since we can’t help anyone until we help ourselves, each of us must ask if we need a change in attitude towards fellow firefighters. Personally, I have always considered my fellow firefighters as part of the family. I know if someone in my family needed help I would be there to help. As we all take strides to look out for each other, we should start seeing more firefighters accept help when confronted.
If we don’t know how to help, then let’s get someone to step in who can. There are many resources at our disposal and they should be utilized as much as possible. Start asking your training officers to get people in to help educate your department about the signs and symptoms of drug abuse, depression, anxiety; about how to handle stress, and about how to manage the work-life balance. Talk with your chiefs and see what they suggest or, if you can, take the lead to bring programs into the station. We should all be taking a proactive approach instead of a reactive approach. Let’s look out for each other and start making a difference inside the firehouse the way we do outside the firehouse.
Mark Lamplugh Jr. is a fourth generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester (PA) Fire Company. He is now a national treatment consultant with American Addiction Centers specializing in First Responder Services. Mark has placed and referred hundreds of firefighters nationwide. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org