LAKELAND, Fla. — Several recent cases of Bay area first responders taking their own lives have brought attention to a national problem: The effect of job-related stress on first responders.
The Lakeland Fire Department wants to be part of a culture change taking place to tackle the issue. It is training local firefighters and other first responders this week to offer peer support to their co-workers.
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The department brought in peer support trainer Tom Howard from Illinois. He has been a firefighter there for decades.
Howard led classroom training on mental health issues, such as PTSD and suicidal thoughts. One part of the training was how to be a good listener when someone comes to the peer supporter with an issue.
“So pay attention to those things,” Howard said to the group. One of the phrases Howard used in his class was “It’s OK to not be OK for today.”
“For the average span of a firefighter’s career, first responder’s career, it’s not a matter of if you will see trauma — you will,” Howard said.
OK to open up
The stress of seeing that trauma and the dangers faced by first responders can be a major problem. A study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that nearly half of firefighters have had thoughts about suicide and 35 percent of law enforcement officers have dealt with PTSD.
“So when we go through these things it’s OK to not be OK,” Howard said. “But the caveat I add to that is 'for today,' because we can’t stay there. We need to move past what we see.”
One of the people taking part in the training is Lakeland fire training chief John Almskog. He said he has suffered from PTSD after years of witnessing traumatic situations, including children dying in fires.
Almskog has been open about his PTSD and said LFD wants its people to know it’s okay to open up an issue.
“Vulnerability is one of the things we try to get through with these peer supporters. That as a chief officer I suffer from post-traumatic stress to show them it’s OK,” Almskog said. “It’s not going to affect your promotional abilities.”