It’s a silent mayday. For those who have worked in the fire service for any period, you know many who experience burnout, compassion fatigue, anxiety, depression, and many other forms of mental health challenges. A lack of understanding in how to effectively address these matters has led to an increase in mental/nervous injuries. Sadly, as a result, we have seen a significant increase in suicides in the recent years.
The most tragic part of this is knowing that it’s preventable; that what’s lacking for these people are the proper coping mechanisms to help create the a healthy mindset to get through the adversities one can face.
Mental hygiene is fundamental in our ability to think clearly, engage positively, express ourselves freely, and living an overall successful life. This is especially the case when working in high-risk, high-stress environments. Simply enough, mental hygiene must be an essential part of overall health.
Psychological Empowerment 360 is for everyone; those who are bravely battling the temporary challenges of life, but also a tool for getting out of the syndrome and into the strategy.
According to Matsumoto, culture can be defined as a system of explicit and implicit rules established by a group to ensure its survival. This includes shared attitudes, beliefs, norms, and behaviors communicated from one generation to the next.”
At one time or another, practically every fire service member has heard the most dangerous phrase: “We’ve always done it this way.” A culture of complacency is a recipe for disaster. It’s well past time for a paradigm shift that begins with personal accountability. We must be the change that we hope to see.
The unfortunate truth is that there are still many fire departments that are defaulting to the culture, rather than defining the culture.
When an organization defaults to the culture, we often experience the ABC’s of complacency: attitudes, behaviors and a fixed culture. Many in the organization may experience attitudes (thinking and/or feeling) that often lead to behaviors (physical responses) and ultimately build a culture that is toxic and harmful (environment/experiences).
To build a culture of excellence, we must have organizational systems in place for resilience; and personal resilience capacity building that focuses on whole body wellness. Organizational systems for resilience start at recruitment and extend throughout retirement. These systems can be things like peer support teams, critical incident stress management (CISM) teams, or return-to-work programs consisting of those who have experienced mental/nervous injuries.
Leaders and managers aren’t the only ones who define the culture. As a first responder, we must have personal resilience capacity building that promotes mental hygiene practices, ensuring we’re not just maintaining health, but constantly improving it.
The following are some healthy and effective strategies to help lead a life of positive mental health. By developing healthy habits and implementing anti-stress management tools, you can discover post-traumatic growth from the ashes of post-traumatic stress.
Extinguishing the Stigma
Our words reflect our beliefs; it all begins with attitude and mindset. We have the ability to extinguish the personal and social stigmas on mental health but must first begin normalizing conversations around mental health. The fire service and its leaders have been disciplined in bringing awareness to the importance of mental health and mental health training, but we as individuals have to construct psychological empowerment to be as healthy and resilient as possible.
Since some organizations may not provide mental health training, it is imperative that the individual must develop personal mind and brain power to improve overall well-being. This is when you have Psychological Empowerment 360 — when you feel empowered, you feel energized and resilient.
Personal Resilience Capacity Building
We know that not all organizations lead in the same way. More so, some of our brothers and sisters work in a toxic work environment with little to no leadership. We cannot simply rely on our organization to be the sole source in constructing overall well-being. We as humans need to seek out self-care, self-awareness, and self-reflection. We’re building skills before the pills.
While peer support and CISM teams have been found to be extremely helpful, we cannot simply rely on them to provide all of the answers, when in fact it’s not their role to give them. They are there to normalize the conversation and be authentic and engage in intentional listening. Those serving are a piece of the organizational systems for resilience. To have overall resilience, it requires a focus on personal resilience capacity building.
Growing Psychological Empowerment 360 requires discipline and consistent evaluation to have self-discovery of how you respond to personal and workplace stress. Many people are stressed out, burned out, and maxed out, but rarely work to identify specific triggers. By first turning inward, it leaves one better equipped to identify and control these experiences.
For instance, for those having an acute response to a particular situation, they can utilize strategies put in place ahead of time to ensure strong self-management skills that will lead to positive mental health and overcome the temporary challenge of life.
Self-care should consist of intentionally engaged practices that are focused on emotional, physical, spiritual, and social well-being.
As first responders, this can be difficult. We’re public servants that more times than not focus on others first, rather than ourselves. While being a public servant is in our heart and blood, we must develop self-care techniques that close the gap from just physical health to whole body-wellness (i.e.: Psychological Empowerment 360). This includes mental hygiene; just like the hygienic practices of brushing our teeth and cleaning our body.
Think of the importance of self-care as like flying in a plane. Before takeoff, the flight crew does a safety briefing to the passengers, which typically ends like this: “If you are traveling with children, or seated next to someone who needs assistance, please place the oxygen mask on yourself first.”
As first responders, we must remember we can’t help others if we’re not properly caring for ourselves. This means developing effective personal self-care techniques including post-traumatic stress strategies. Practicing self-care isn’t selfish; it’s essential.
Implementing these techniques needs to consist of things which are personally therapeutic; solutions aren’t a one size fits all. Typically, we can experience whole body well-being when we sleep better, have rewarding relationships, engage in enjoyable activities, as well as healthier eating and exercise habits.
To use a computer analogy, we need to know when to “reset” by using CTRL + ALT + DEL: What can you “Control,” “Alternate,” and/or “Delete” to lead for a happier and healthier life?
Do you have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset?
Each of us individually has our own thinking styles. But how we think today isn’t necessarily how we have to think tomorrow and beyond. One must learn more about the power of neuroplasticity, where, if you train the brain by mindset, it becomes more sophisticated and, essentially, adaptable over one’s lifetime. The brain can then be connected with neurons that promote growth and positivity.
Working in the fire service brings challenges and experiences that expose us to things that most other professions don’t. With Psychological Empowerment 360, developing mind power is integral in transitioning from post-traumatic stress to post-traumatic growth. Regularly facing emergencies and adversities, it is critical for us to manage our minds, rather than allowing our minds manage us. Therefore, it’s critical to know how your mind works, especially when afflicted with stress.
When someone has a fixed mindset, they are basically stuck, or “fixed,” on a particular way of seeing, doing, feeling, experiencing, or coping. And without changing these beliefs, it is nearly impossible to change the behaviors that ultimately lead to the same negative results and patterns.
However, by instead developing a growth mindset — where people believe that their intelligence and behaviors can evolve over time — we can enhance our mind, along with how we perceive our current life circumstances.
It’s about creating a state of mind of that builds circuits of positivity. As neurons fire together, they begin to wire together, so you’re literally rewiring your brain (i.e.: neuroplasticity).
Mental Health Pre-Plan
We all know the importance of pre-fire plans and how they can serve us. Similarly, having a mental health pre-plan means that we have a course of action; a strategy in place to help guide us to positive mental health during a time when we may be experiencing something weighing us down.
The pre-plan includes having a vetted clinician whom you have spoken to beforehand. Most of us seek a dentist, family physician, or specialist for relevant conditions we may have. Yet it’s far too uncommon for us to proactively seek a mental health professional.
Outside of battling the stigmas associated with mental health, perhaps it’s also because identifying the right clinician can be a daunting task. It requires time and research to find one who has experience working with first responders. Ask questions to ensure you’d be ready and willing to talk to this person when those temporary but highly sensitive obstacles in life surface.
For those serving on a peer support or CISM team, developing a mental health pre-plan is just as critical, as one can experience vicarious trauma. More so, you can have a significant impact through your circle of influence and can encourage others in developing their personalized pre-plan.
The Mind-Body Connection
Self-care is not relegated to how we respond to isolated incidences. I personally discovered that the cumulative stress, the sleep deprivation the poor eating habits may lead to a greater impact than the traumatic experiences first responders incur.
Building the right self-care habits can and will make a lasting impact on one’s life. It’s not just about one big thing. It’s more about prioritizing yourself, and continuously discovering and improving techniques.
As the fire service continues the mental health discussion, it’s time we normalize the conversations surrounding the subject. This is not a trend that will go away. Let’s remember the power of communication and make it a top priority to lead ourselves to advanced mental hygiene and whole-body health.
Yours in safety, health, and wellness, The Mental Hygiene Project Team.
For more information, go to www.MentalHygieneProject.com
Michael L. Stahl
Ryan S. Gallik