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Ryan Hanson: Volunteer firefighters and mental health

Ryan Hanson: Volunteer firefighters and mental health

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There are over 1,000 volunteer fire departments across the state of Illinois, and many of them dot the rural towns across Central Illinois. Within each of those departments are brave hometown heroes, who regularly drop everything to help a neighbor in crisis.

However, if my 20-plus years in the fire service have taught me anything, it’s that sometimes firefighters don’t feel there is room for that image of a courageous firefighter to co-exist with someone reaching out for mental health help.

Sadly, this misperception has led to far too many firefighters to take their own lives after bottling up all of the stress from the job inside for too long. In fact, firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.

Responding to a cardiac arrest, fatal fire or car wreck can be traumatic, but answering those calls can be particularly difficult for volunteer firefighters in small towns because they likely know someone involved. To make matters worse, many times these firefighters don’t go back to the firehouse and debrief after a tough call. Instead, they return home to their families where they refrain from discussing the difficult things they’ve witnessed, and instead, suppress their emotions in unhealthy ways.

Many first responders also have a fixer mentality – since they focus on fixing problems and helping people in their communities, it might seem burdensome to admit they have problems of their own. It might be difficult for them to explain to friends or family what they are going through out of fear that others might not understand.

It’s time to turn the tide when it comes to the mental health crisis among volunteer firefighters in Central Illinois. How do we begin? By ending the stigma connected to mental health in our volunteer firehouses, taking the time to debrief tough calls together and making firefighters aware of the mental health resources available to them.

One of those mental health resources is Illinois Firefighter Peer Support, which I have been involved with for three years as the Central Illinois Coordinator. Illinois Firefighter Peer Support is a 450-firefighter-strong network of trained, peer supporters providing career and volunteer first responders with a safe, non-judgmental and confidential environment where they can engage in a healing conversation. It’s a trusted place for first responders to get help from someone who has likely been on traumatic calls themselves and really understands the unique pressures of the job.

In addition to matching first responders to peer supporters, ILFFPS helps fire departments conduct debriefing sessions after tough calls and can connect those suffering from emotional trauma with mental health professionals specialized in the needs of first responders.

Protecting our communities begins with first protecting ourselves, and that includes mental health and well-being. I urge all firefighters in our region, including volunteers, who need help to contact the ILFFPS Peer Support Hotline at 855-90-SUPPORT or email ILFFPS at Ilffps1@gmail.com.

Real bravery begins with being open about your mental health and getting help when you need it.

Ryan Hanson has been in the fire service for more than 20 years, and currently serves with the Pontiac Fire Department. Visit Ilffps.org for more information and self-help resources.

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