Beyond Bravery – supporting the mental wellbeing of firefighters in unprecedented conditions

Beyond Bravery – supporting the mental wellbeing of firefighters in unprecedented conditions

Australian firefighters are facing up to the most challenging fire season in history. With summer just beginning, 1000’s have been called upon to battle catastrophic conditions and bushfires that have already burnt through millions of hectares of drought-parched land. As they continue their efforts to protect life and property, it is vital they are also equipped with simple and practical advice regarding how they may protect their own mental wellbeing.

Dr Sadhbh Joyce is a psychologist whose PhD studies at the Black Dog Institute focused on the development of psychological resilience amongst firefighters. She is also the co-founder of online resilience training program Mindarma, which has been rolled out across Fire and Rescue NSW. She says “as much we like to see our firies as brave heroes, we also have to remember that they are humans. They will have normal human reactions to all that they face and if we expect they will simply ‘tough it out’ we do them a real disservice. Being tough is very different from being resilient.”

According to Dr Joyce, one of the biggest ways in which firefighters can protect themselves is by practising self-care. “Firefighters know how to look after their equipment and they are incredible at looking after others. Most however, need to be reminded to treat themselves with the same level of care and compassion.”

It is important that all firefighters have a plan of what they will do to look after themselves, following a difficult day. Small, simple acts such as calling loved ones, taking time out for a quiet cuppa or a few minutes to stretch sore muscles, can have a nurturing effect for both mind and body.

Mindfulness is another self-care tool being employed by an increasing number of firefighters and other first responders. The practise, which has a range of well-documented psychological benefits, can be particularly useful for firefighters who may be trying to ground themselves, release stress and integrate what they have experienced at the fire-front.

During a day battling fires it’s entirely natural for all sorts of challenging emotions to arise. Firefighters can be caught up in life-threatening situations. They may see colleagues injured, property destroyed and people from their community in distress. For many, seeing livestock and wildlife caught up in the fires can also be particularly challenging.

Dr Joyce advises that in processing these emotions, self-kindness will go a lot further than a ‘spoonful of concrete’. “Firefighters typically sign up for the job because they are people who care and strongly value being of service. Emotions are very natural reminders that they are human beings, not robots and that they have things in life they truly care about. Trying to repress emotions or fight against them can be exhausting and damaging in the long-term. A far more adaptive and successful approach, is to acknowledge emotions, understand the values they are connected to and offer self-kindness while experiencing them,” says Dr Joyce.

Being involved in a dangerous, stressful event, such as a bushfire, also prompts natural physiological reactions, including the release of adrenaline and cortisol within the body. In the short-term, these stress chemicals can be useful in keeping firefighters alert and keeping them going. Sustained high levels can however keep firefighters wired and on edge, heightening the risk of physical and mental fatigue.

With the greater length of the fire season, fatigue can pose serious challenges, particularly for firefighters who are criss-crossing the country on deployments to battle multiple blazes. It is important that firefighters be able to recognise when they are struggling psychologically or approaching burnout. While duty calls loudly for most firefighters, there are times when stepping back can be a very brave and resilient action.

John McGarvey, who is a Senior Firefighter and Senior Member of the Critical Incident Peer Support Program at Fire and Rescue NSW, says “because we care, we tend to push ourselves in ways that aren’t always healthy, like trying to be all things to everyone all the time. A big part of developing resilience is recognising the warning signs of burnout, like being irritable or constantly cynical and then doing what is needed to nurture and support yourself.”

For the many who have already been battling blazes and face a long season ahead, recovery will be particularly important. “It is advisable not to get caught up trying to do it all. Simply, do what matters most and accept that some things will remain undone. Maintain your boundaries and don’t feel guilty about putting your feet up, or taking time out for those things that restore, refresh and energise you,” says Dr Joyce.

Self-care should never be seen as selfish. Instead, it must be regarded as an essential component of maintaining good psychological health and wellbeing. Self-care allows firefighters and other first responders to fill their cups energetically, emotionally and physically, so that they can continue to honour their values long-term in all aspects of their lives.

It’s important to recognise that stress does not just arise from fighting fires. Many of those battling the blazes are volunteers or retained (on call) firefighters who may have to negotiate time off with employers, manage a farm or keep a business running. They may have numerous family responsibilities too.  All these stressors can easily pile up. When placed on top of financial stress, worries about the drought, relationship problems or health issues, it can be a lot for anyone to take on by themselves.

When faced with multiple pressures, reaching out for support is incredibly important. Trusted friends, partners and colleagues can play a vital role. Most fire agencies also have peer support, chaplaincy and professional counselling services available. For professional support, firefighters may also book in to see their GP or ask for a referral to psychologist, who can provide up to 10 Medicare rebated sessions.

“As conditions become more challenging, all first responders must consider their own wellbeing and the actions they can take to care and look after themselves,” says John McGarvey “Above all, it’s important to remember that reaching out for support is always 100% okay. In fact, it is a real act of resilience that will keep you healthy and in the fight.”

Further reading: The Australian Psychological Society have prepared helpful tips and resources on best how to support your mind and body during and after bushfire.