Over the past several years, the fire service has made tremendous strides addressing the issues of emotional wellness and firefighter suicide. And while there is still much work still to do, we have seen progress made throughout the fire service in reducing the stigma associated with behavioral health and getting help to those who need it. This progress wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the work and dedication of Peer Support Teams that have been implemented in departments across the country. As these teams continue to complete the heavy lifts that come with assisting firefighters going through divorce, battling substance abuse, or contemplating suicide, there is an underlying issue that is developing within peer support teams. That issue is who is there when peer support needs help?
When asked how team members deal with this added weight, the answer is often “we just deal with it”. But isn’t this answer part of how we got here to begin with? If we are telling firefighters that is isn’t ok to “just deal with it” and that help is available, then why is it acceptable for peer support to adopt the same mantra? So, the question remains: who is checking on peer support?
Peer support teams are often implemented with the intention of helping members manage their stress and provide assistance to those struggling. However, we often aren’t prepared for the opening of “Pandora’s Box” that often ensues once the team is operational. This leads to team members becoming burnt out, taking on too much, and often not knowing how to manage their own stress or where to turn when they themselves need help.
This course will review a case study that involves the development and implementation of a peer support team, the team’s response to a suicide of an active member of their own fire department within 7 months of the team being organized, and the aftermath involving members of the peer support team whose load, at times, became too much to carry, and the lessons learned from responding to this tragic incident. This course will hopefully provide insight on how we, as leaders, need to take care of those willing to sacrifice their own mental well-being in service of others.