Making It Okay Not to be Okay: Part Two of ATFN’s Two-Part Series on First Responder Wellness

By James Careless

In Part One of this series on first responder wellness, retired North Las Vegas Fire Chief Jeff Lytle examined the persisting stigma associated with first responder job-related depression, PTSD, and suicide. In Part Two he considers what can be done to change it.

As a 30+ year first responder himself, Chief Lytle knows how hard it is to change long-standing cultural practices, even if they are destructive and self-defeating. “Unfortunately In the fire service we have been consistent in our approach to safety for over 100 years,” he says. “We don’t change things until someone dies! Or do we? In the Las Vegas valley we had five suicides over a five year time frame. We can do better than this!”

“How do we make the information out there tangible and accessible?” Chief Lytle asks. “How do we help people who are struggling to have emotional connections so that they are willing to open up and willing to reach out for help?”

Based on his own experience, addressing the mental toll of first response work has to start with a real commitment from the top brass to actively acknowledge, support, and validate the emotional traumas experienced by their officers. Just mouthing the words won’t work: “I have learned, over the years, that for me as the Fire Chief to stand up and outline the CISM program or to review all of the resources available, does very little to really help someone,” he says. “The culture needs to be changed to truly accept and respect the courage of an individual to be willing to share, to be willing to be vulnerable and to ask for help!”

So how can a first responder agency make this happen? Chief Lytle has some tangible ideas.

“For instance, we train every shift to be good at our jobs: Even though our jobs are dangerous we train so that we can go home safe every day,” he says. “We now also need to talk, to share , and to normalize the stress we deal with so that we can not only go home safe, but we can go home well!”

To make this happen, commanders have to create a working environment where people feel safe talking about their feelings — by leading the way and doing so in public themselves. As well, officers need to forge positive emotional connections with others and drop their macho facades. The emotional cost of maintaining them is just too high.

“Our people need to be encouraged to be emotionally courageous as they prepare themselves to go home well!” says North Las Vegas firefighter Anthony ‘Nino’ Galloway.  “But that’s not all: We also need to teach supervisors and peers to better recognize potential red flags related to job-related stress, and to step in to address it quickly and effectively, rather than to avoid the task because they find it to be emotionally difficult.”

Of course, those in command were never trained to perform this kind of work. This is why “as we help people to deal with critical stress, there must always be professional help that is available to do the job properly,” Chief Lytle says. “For instance, some organizations are now making counseling sessions with the department’s Mental Health professional as part of their annual physicals. This allows the individual to establish a relationship with a provided professional, backed by a guarantee of confidentiality to protect the officer’s career. This can provide the individual with a much-needed comfort level when they are struggling to reach out to that professional for help.”

Another way to help — and to overcome cultural prejudices within an agency — is to establish

‘peer support teams’ where officers rely on each other for counsel and ongoing support. “For an individual who is struggling, to be able to reach out to a peer that they know has had an addiction, depression, or suicidal tendencies, can be the emotional connection they need to feel more comfortable in reaching out for help!”

Wellness also has to be on the agenda at every briefing. “We have to normalize the conversation and discussions about Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) programs by mentioning them daily, making sure CISM information is readily available on every bulletin board, and that there’s a QR code posted to provide access to information immediately, because an individual who is struggling does not need to go searching for resource information.”

“It all comes down to regarding mental wellness as comfortably and openly as we regard physical wellness,” concludes Chief Lytle. “With the right attitudes, actions, and commitment, we can change first responder culture for the better. There is no reason that the current level of suffering has to continue for first responders, their families, and friends. This isn’t what they signed up for, and it is not what they should have to go through.”


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