FOND DU LAC (NBC 26) — Responding to crisis after crisis, day after day takes a toll on the mental health of firefighters and paramedics. Even veteran first responders struggle with their mental health throughout their careers. To address the issue, the Fond du Lac Fire and Rescue Department is developing new initiatives to address mental health in their team.
“Trying to adjust to this new lifestyle and running the calls and everything like that, it's just been kind of a lot for me," Quinn Kaiser, a firefighter and paramedic, said. "So, I have been using these services available to us.”
And the problem is widespread.
The International Firefighters association reported the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder among firefighters is about 20%— which is four times higher than the general population and is comparable to that of combat veterans.
"I know that I've had some myself," Fond du Lac Fire Chief Erick Gerritson said. "There's calls I remember like they were yesterday. Some child deaths, there's some trauma calls that I've been on in my career. So I know that if we don't have an outlet or a way to handle that, that accumulative effect can be very harmful to a person."
The rates of anxiety, depression and suicide are also high among first responders. In fact, firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in active duty.
"I know that there have been many times where you can't sleep at night or you dwell or think about these issues," Gerritson said. "And you need to have outlets and resources available to talk about this kind of stuff."
Gerritson made mental health a priority when he became fire chief in April.
Last month, eight clinicians from SSM Health participated in ride-alongs with the fire crew. The idea is that when clinicians have a first-hand look at the daily lives of these first responders, they can better support them.
“I would definitely feel more comfortable meeting with them and talking to them knowing that they came to spend some time with us and understand a little bit of our job on top of that," firefighter paramedic Matt Simon said. "That's probably the most difficult thing is when we go to some places they don't really understand what we truly do or see.”
Eight clinicians participated in the program and shadowed each crew for six to eight hours during their shifts. Now, when a firefighter needs help through the department's employee assistance program, they can talk to specialists who have a better idea of the stress of their jobs.
"Having that outlet just to talk is great when there's some stuff that I don't really feel like sharing with my family or my coworkers," Kaiser said. "And just having that outlet is amazing. And they're also able to point me in the direction of other resources that could help me. And this is something that's new to me where I've never experienced, like stuff like this in the past."
Addressing mental health can also help with firefighter retention.
"There's quite a few people that go through all the schooling and have a whole bunch of experience that have some mental health issues. So, they leave the job kind of prematurely because they can't handle it anymore," Simon said. "So, I think that having that mental health awareness and help in there will increase that longevity."
The program also includes a peer mental health support program, where several firefighter paramedics receive training on how to help other members of their team.
"Pretty much we're all in this together and we're all having the same experiences," Kaiser said. "So, to use each other and have that, being that new person, to feel welcomed is great."
Gerritson said these initiatives are low- or no-cost and will be absorbed into the department's 2023 budget.