Staying Cool Under Fire: Mental Health Tips for Firefighters

( The Volunteer Firefighter )

Dr. Stephen Odom, President, CEO & Chief Clinical Officer, New Vista Behavioral Health

For those in the fire and rescue field, traumatic events are par for the course. While it can be rewarding to help those in need, that work can take a toll. Maintaining good mental health is essential to performing at your best and keeping you from taking the stressors home with you when the day is done.

We’ve put together a few tips to help both volunteer firefighter departments and individual firefighters maintain strong mental health in the field and after experiencing traumatic events.

Stress Education and Techniques

Whether your whole department learns together, or you take your education into your own hands, understanding the physical effects of stress on the body can help you better prepare for how to maintain calm in the moment. When the body is stressed, the nervous system delivers a fight-or-flight response.

Knowing what to expect in these moments can better help you prepare to respond. Techniques like combat breathing – the act of counting to four for each step of the breathing process – can act as a soft reset for the nervous system.

Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the act of focusing on the present moment with non-judgmental acceptance of thoughts, feelings and sensations, which can help regulate emotion. This can be especially useful for those in the fire and rescue field in reacting to both the regular stressors of their work and the more traumatic experiences they’re bound to face.

Sleep Hygiene

Firefighting by nature is physically taxing work. Regularly getting a good night’s sleep can make a world of difference in how you’re able to respond to stress and trauma.

Maintaining good sleep hygiene simply means enacting practices to ensure your sleep is restful. Techniques like maintaining a regular sleep routine, avoiding watching TV or reading in bed, and exercising regularly can help you get the most out of your sleep. If you find your mind racing in bed, get out and sit in the dark until your brain slows down.

Resilience Training

By building mental resilience, firefighters will be better equipped to adapt to stressful situations and recover quickly after experiencing a traumatic event. Again, this can be something a fire department provides for all of its volunteers or an individual practice. Looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may improve, learning to accept change as a part of life, and developing a positive view of yourself can all help you improve your resilience. Try to take decisive actions in adverse situations rather than detaching and hoping stress will go away on its own.

Mental Toughness

Similar to resilience training, building mental toughness can better equip firefighters by helping them see challenges and adversity as an opportunity for growth rather than a threat, thereby helping combat the daily stressors of the fire and rescue field.

Working as a Team

Fire departments can help their firefighters take these individual practices a step further by creating peer support groups with a focus on mental health. By offering firefighters a safe space to talk through job stressors or debrief from a particularly traumatic experience, you’ll create a culture where mental health is as important as physical health, ultimately allowing your firefighters to perform their best work possible.

Dr. Stephen Odom is a distinguished health care and addiction treatment professional with over 25 years of expertise in the behavioral health field. He currently serves as the CEO and Chief Clinical Officer of New Vista Behavioral Health, the parent company of Center for Professional Recovery, Avalon Malibu, Avalon Integrative Wellness and Simple Recovery. Dr. Odom has a comprehensive educational background in health care, holding a bachelor’s degree in organizational behavior, a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a doctorate with a focus in health care administration.