On this World Mental Health Day 2018, I discuss how peer support specialists are advocates for mental health.
On this World Mental Health Day 2018, I discuss how peer support specialists are advocates for mental health.
For this installment of our team blog, I am trying a video log format. Please send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
On May 28th of this year, I entered what will be my last year in the fire service. It has been the greatest honor to serve others in their time of need, and I openly embrace my pending retirement with a balanced mind, body, and spirit. Several firefighters on my department will retire before me over the next year, and this got me thinking about what it will be like to move beyond the lights and sirens.
There are different types of relationships we encounter over a lifetime: spousal, familial, parental, etc. The one that we do not often examine is the relationship we have with our chosen career as a first responder. This partnership is also filled with highs and lows, victories and defeats, peace, and harmony as any marriage that I know. Over the course of 20 + years, we cultivate a bond, and sometimes fight with our “second family”. For many first responders, this is another chapter (in their book of life) as they move on to other pursuits. For others, this world is all they know and the thought of life beyond that, can riddle them with anxiety. What are they to do?
As Matt Olson once said “The Fire Service has the ability to really get into your blood, and it’s something that if we are not careful, is easy to make firefighter our identity. So, when people leave this career, it can be challenging.” ILFFPS Retiree Liaison Chuck Wehrli echoed this sentiment when he said “Last year alone out of 94 suicides across the country for firefighters and medics, 15% were retirees, and within weeks of retirement had committed suicide. When people are not prepared to retire, it can be very difficult if they do not have support. If you are having issues with retirement as far as medical, not prepared to do anything any more but sit around the house – reach out to the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support. Give us your feedback, and let’s try to make it better for the next generation of people.” The begs the question, what can we do to gracefully cross the bridge from active duty into retirement?
One of the requirements of the initial peer support training is to develop your own personal wellness plan that has a two-fold purpose. First, it gives us direction or a game plan if you will, should life “on the job” become personally overwhelming. Second, it provides a guide for us to use when we meet with a peer in need to assist them in creating his/her own wellness initiative. This plan should be revised often to include goals for life after service. Let’s look at a couple of ways to help us cross that bridge. I encourage our readers to respond to this post and grow this list.
One honorable way to stay connected to the service is to become a member of ILFFPS and assist the next generation of first responders manage what can be a physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging career path. A retiree has at a minimum 20 years’ worth of wisdom that can be shared with younger peers whose world has become overwhelming. It is most gratifying to sit across from a brother or sister in need and watch his/her face light up with hope. Give Chuck or anyone of our peer leaders a call to get started.
Another way to bow out gracefully is to be the best mentor you can to the younger first responders (in the time you have left) to ensure the world you leave behind is in capable hands. Don’t be surprised if your phone rings often, and it is the young charges seeking your advice when the going gets tough. I am working earnestly to express my gratitude (to the fire service) by developing a strong wellness program that includes physical, mental, and emotional resiliency components. It is the least I can do as I part ways with the friendship I cultivated nearly 25 years ago.
As for me, I will remain actively involved with ILFFPS in my current role, as well as an instructor for the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. I also own a startup health coaching and wellness education business that I hope will keep me busy long after I hang up my gear for the final time.
A couple of weeks ago I chose The Eagles It’s Your World Now as my retirement song. On the surface it is about the relationship between a couple. To me, however, it best exemplifies the relationship I had with my friend- the fire service. This song also offers words of advice to those whom I leave behind. Glenn Fry tells this story far better than I could ever describe in writing. I hope you enjoy this little gem. Until next time –
Be well and stay safe,
During a recent conversation, I was asked what it was like to share my story for the first time with my colleagues. How was it accepted? Was I viewed as weak because I openly shared my mental health struggles? The easiest way for me to answer the above questions is to rewind the video in my life and start at that moment in time.
In April of 2014, I was part of the inaugural Illinois Firefighter Peer Support graduating class (it is hard to believe that 4 years have flown by so quickly). Our first assignment, as you know well is to provide educational outreach to our respective departments. My first experience was to present to my fellow officers at the monthly staff meeting which was held in June of that same year. Prior to my seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress injuries, I wreaked havoc during several said meetings with a bull-in-the-china shop mentality. When my buttons were pushed, I quickly pounced back at whomever challenged me. My chief commented one time that even he felt uncomfortable. “Uh, Oh! I thought. It was time to cool my jets.” ILFFPS changed all of that for me.
I remember vividly standing before my colleagues sharing not only the concept of ILFFPS, but also my personal struggles. I apologized for my past behaviors and stressed that my PTSD was not an excuse, but an explanation for my actions. My story was well received by my peers, and I was thanked for being honest and humble about the past. I decided to start my journey here, as it was my very first share post-class. Next up, was presenting to the rest of the department. I covered all shifts and had one of our fellow peer supporters assist me with this endeavor in November of 2014. A small group of officers was one thing, but the entire department was another. On the surface, the outreach was well-received.
I can never really say if I am viewed as weak because I openly acknowledged that I sought out psychotherapy for my issues- for most would never tell me that directly. I was recently made aware by one of the younger firefighters that some person(s) voiced an opinion that the peer work I do is complete BS. “Why should we sit and listen to someone else’s story”, one was heard to say. It is not for me to judge the merits of this statement, as I am going to work tirelessly regardless of what is said because peer support does work as evidenced by those I have listened to and referred when necessary.
It is going to take our brothers and sisters time to become comfortable with our work, as change takes time. In life, we will face an opposing viewpoint. The key is to have the courage to move beyond the shadows (of stigma), and let your voice be heard- as it is one of the most kind and healing gifts that you can give to your mind, body, and spirit. Equally as important, this voice may resonate with at least one person whose life will be changed forever for the better.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Our lives begin to end, the day we remain silent about things that matter.”
Have courage and matter- our peers will respond in-kind. I highly encourage you to actively participate in our team blog. You can send any submissions (in a Word document) to me at email@example.com Please include a title for your work. Submissions can be about personal stories, self-care, or anything you feel will benefit our readers at-large. Until next time-
On September 21st, I had the honor and privilege of attending day one of the 2nd Annual Rosecrance Florian Symposium along with 200 others from 20 States. It was awesome to catch up with fellow team members as well as make new contacts with others who have a personal stake in behavioral health issues concerning 1st responders. After listening to several speakers throughout the day, the common theme boiled down to just one word – vulnerability.
The day began with Florian Program Director Dan DeGryse recounting his years with the Chicago Fire Department as a rank and file blue shirt to battalion Chief (current rank) to the head of their EAP program for over 15 years. Dan related that there were many times after a shift he came home and just did not want to talk to anybody (due in part to his role as both a firefighter and EAP director), something he acknowledged had affected his family dynamic. He also expressed his frustration and anger over the increasing suicides within the department, something that eventually lead to his association with Rosecrance and the development of the Florian Program. Dan’s opening remarks were authentic and filled with emotion.
The first keynote speaker was Kent Williams, a retired Police Chief who spoke about the arena of crisis within which 1st responders operate, and how we can overcome the stressors (curse) that comes with the blessing of serving others in need. Kent spoke about his “wake up” when his wife had to tell him that his children were afraid of him. It was at that moment in the presentation that I sensed his regret over this issue in his life. However, this incident inspired him to create his business Breach Point Consulting. He defined the breach point as “A sudden change in personal/professional perspective, allowing for tremendous personal growth”. He shares lessons learned (that spanned a 32-year career) with others so they will not have to face the same trials and tribulations. An honest, open, and dynamic conversation to say the least.
The next session I attended was presented by (a friend of mine from Canada) Dan Bowers who is a retired Ontario Provincial Police Officer. Dan recounted his struggles with PTSD, depression, and drinking that led to two failed marriages and estrangement from his children. After much reflection, Dan realized that the most important circle around us (family, friends, or significant others) are all too often left behind with no idea about how to help the first responder should they experience a crisis. This led Dan to complete ardent research concerning this issue which inspired him to create the First Eyes Mental Health Program. Currently this program is only available in Canada, and consists of a 6-hour workshop that includes all stakeholders in the 1st responder’s circle. By the end of the day, this circle will complete 8 modules of instruction and leave with a solid game plan and resources to use in the event of a mental/emotional crisis. Two memorable take-away quotes from this presentation: “Mental health recovery is not linear, it bounces back and forth but you can get through it, and have a rebirth”. “We can’t rely on others to do our homework”. Another real, raw, and honest conversation about lessons learned.
The next session I attended was led by our own Colleen Murphy who is the Spouse Coordinator for Illinois Firefighter Peer Support. Colleen shared her personal story as the wife of a firefighter and the nuggets of wisdom garnered from this life experience. The greatest take away for any first responder is that it is very hard to separate the effects of the job from home life. A way to ease this burden is to have an open line of communication between partners and their children. Colleen said it is paramount to bring kids to the workplace to relieve any separation anxiety and/or fears they may experience. Colleen is a great asset to spouses and significant others and connects easily with those she helps just by being honest and open.
The final speakers of the day were Mike Dugan and John Walters of the FDNY who shared each of their own personal stories about years on the job and the toll it took on their psyche. These speakers did not define the effects of mental health injuries (like PTSD) as would a textbook- they did not have to. They spoke of self-medicating through alcohol, having a spouse significant other give them an “eye-opener” through honest conversation, and losing friends through suicide. Each man took the courageous step and had the emotional intelligence to realize that they would not get any better without seeking the services of a professional counselor and peer support personnel. Mike did state it is most beneficial to seek out a counselor who has a strong baseline knowledge of our profession for the most meaningful recovery. An hour and 15 minutes of two men telling very poignant stories. Nothing more and nothing less.
The theme for this year’s Symposium was “We all Need Help Sometimes”. To me, the theme for the day was vulnerability. Each speaker connected with his/her audience simply by providing an open, honest, and meaningful conversation. As peer support team members, we are engaged in public speaking (educational) events to spread the good word, as well as provide one-on-one services to a brother or sister in need. In the long run- to resonate, be vulnerable.
In health and wellness,