Firefighter Mental Health: Are We Really Saving Our Own?

By Eric Paniak

Firefighters talk about saving our own, but are we just talking about on the fireground? Why is it that when one of our own is having emotional problems we at times alienate or isolate them? Our job is inherently dangerous and mentally taxing on our families and firefighters. When one of our own has an injury or physical illness, we support him and his family. But if that illness be depression or substance abuse, we tend to back away like it is contagious.

We are both physically and mentally tough, so why does this happen to us? I have been sober for 13 years now. Right at the time I was at my lowest, all my brothers isolated me and forgot about me. I am a good firefighter and a good paramedic. I would give my life for my brother without hesitation. So why was I left behind? Forgotten?

I was not living up to our ethics and morals. I did not choose for this to happen to me, and although these substances were not forced on me, I took them…I get it. I did get help, but while I was hospitalized I did not get one call form the fire service either supporting me or encouraging me. My family did not receive any calls or offers of support. While having marital problems, no help was offered by my peers. Now I am aware that my personality may have had something to do with it, but no one even asked. I am not looking for pity or sympathy, nor do I have any ill-will toward my fellow firefighters. In my eyes, I still believe they are great firefighters and medics. In my questioning and examining my own experience, however, I came to learn that I am not the only one in our service who has had this experience.

Why do firefighters not seek help? I think it is for several reasons. We are a proud bunch, not willing to admit defeat or weakness. We are the help, we don’t ask for it. There is no 911 for us; we are it. We see things that very few other groups see. Only the active military combat and military veterans and police are acquainted with the same sort of horrors.

If you don’t understand us, we will not open up to you; you need to have credibility among us. We don’t trust outsiders. Employee assistance programs are usually an employers attempt at helping us, but those people, while very qualified, lack credibility (and they work for our bosses). It is very humiliating and demoralizing when you are at your lowest to have to ask for help. Officers in our departments are obligated to enforce policy, so how do I go to him and say I need help?

What about a program that uses firefighters that are recovering as a support group (Firefighters Unanimous?) What about counselors who came from the fire service? What about retired, recovering firefighters? What about professionals who are intimately aware of our job? What about training for firefighters to assist firefighters or public safety professionals1?

Many of you reading this probably have been touched by substance abuse or mental health, either personally or by someone in your immediate family: parent, partner, sibling, or child. My guess is that someone you know is drowning in debt because of the economy and has considered taking his life or has a child that is depressed and abusing drugs or alcohol. Maybe it is a retired member who has always been the answer to your problems and now has no self-worth and is considering taking his life. What about the person who had an injury that kept them off work for an extended period of time and required pain management and is now addicted to pain medication? These are very real problems that require real solutions.

As a responder to these situations in the civilian world, I had the answers, but when I was in the throes of my disease, I could not find the answers; sometimes I didn’t even know the questions.

In every fire department in every state there are folks among us that have the answers. I know there are firefighters, officers, and chiefs who have recovered from this disease or have schooling in addiction treatment or counseling. We need to find these people and unite them nationally so they are available to us. We need to educate all members from probie to chief.  We need to support the affected and guide them to help. I am not suggesting that we condone this behavior, but we need to help them and support them if they choose to get help. If they refuse the help, that’s on them. Such cases should be handled differently than a person who seeks help. We should encourage and promote, standing by the ones who want to change. This is saving our own. We need to understand that substance abuse is a disease (like diabetes or heart disease). With treatment, this disease can be placed into remission and people can get back to a normal existence.

In my research, there is a lot of discussion about these problems, but no one offers solutions. So what does brotherhood mean? It is very simple: “For you, brother, I will.” An example of such brotherhood: On October 9, 2011, the day of the Chicago Marathon, a runner collapsed. Fire Captain William Lee Caviness, the runner, died 1,000 miles from his home in Greensboro, North Carolina. The commissioner of the Chicago Fire Department rushed to the side of his brother and wife. He comforted them and took care of them like they were at home. The family was lost and alone and didn’t know what to do, but Chief Hoff did. “You step up to the plate, that’s what you do. You do everything you can for this family. Will was one of us.” Chief Hoff took care of them like they were family. That is brotherhood. My guess is if a firefighter called Chief Hoff and told him he was in trouble, he would drop everything and run to his side, because Chief Hoff lives brotherhood.

Brotherhood means personal sacrifice of life’s comforts to comfort another not so fortunate; it means telling someone what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. It means having a vested interest in the physical well-being and mental health of the guys with whom you ride out the door. See, we know our guys’ behavior better than they may know themselves. So a simple, “How you doing, bud?” may reveal some not so nice stuff, especially if we take the cotton out of our ears and put it in our mouths for a few minutes.


(1) Compare to Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) Illinoi–a not-for-profit organization that helps Illinois lawyers, judges, law students, and their families with alcohol abuse, drug dependency, or mental health problems. Services include education, information and referral, peer assistance and intervention.

LAP recognizes that addiction and mental health problems significantly impact a professional’s ability to function in a legal setting. It is the responsibility of the legal profession to assist its members who suffer from such impairment.

Eric PaniakEric Paniak has served as a firefighter-paramedic in a part-time suburban/rural department since 2000. He has been in the fire service since 1984. He is a certified heavy equipment operator and currently works full time for the Illinois Tollway Authority in roadway maintenance. Eric is an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and has been sober for the past 13 years. 

Previous articleIN Firefighter Injured When Flying Ice Strikes Apparatus
Next articleSpace Heater Blamed in Fatal MI House Fire

No posts to display