Editor’s note: This blog is part of an important conversation about wellbeing and mental health for practitioners working in fire, and serves as a continuation of reflections we shared in last year’s blog, “The Workforce We Have: Reflections on the Practitioner Wellbeing Learning Group.” Discussions of mental health can cover a wide range of topics, so we want to issue a content warning for potential triggers related to anxiety, depression, trauma, PTSD, and suicide. We provide resources and helpline information at the end of the post, for anyone looking for support.
Earlier this year, the Fire Learning Network (FLN) and FAC Net partnered to offer a learning series on “Practitioner Wellbeing,” with the intention of raising mental health awareness in the fire world and offering resources for people to support themselves and each other. This series was the second iteration of Fire Networks offerings on wellbeing, following 2022’s series which was summarized in a powerful blog post from last year.
We worked with licensed psychologists, stress injury awareness practitioners, HR advisors, academics, agency professionals, and other therapy providers to better understand mental health and wellbeing from a holistic view. The discussions in our learning group covered a lot of ground, and carried within them a sea of wisdom from both the professionals we brought in to speak and the participants that shared their experiences and reflections.
The series was facilitated by FAC Net Director Emily Troisi, FAC Net and TREX/WTREX Communications Specialist Annie Leverich, and FLN Manager Laurel Kays. Here, Annie and Laurel offer takeaways and reflections from their experience hosting the series.
From Annie – Stress manifests itself emotionally AND physically.
Facing mental health challenges like stress, anxiety, and depression is overwhelming. And oftentimes, it’s difficult to know where to begin to address them. All too often, my own difficulties with mental health have left me dazed, paralyzed by a sense of inertia. Working with my colleagues to host this series was as much a desire to help my community in fire as it was a desire to help myself. You’ve got to start where you are.
Throughout our Practitioner Wellbeing series, we consulted with Dr. Christen Kishel, a licensed psychologist who specializes in work with emergency responders. Dr. Kishel guided us in understanding the complex suite of internal and external factors that contribute to a person’s mental health and wellbeing. We delved into the literal neuroscience of stress – the chemical reactions and physical responses in our brains when we’re under duress. She shared with us this video describing what happens when our thinking brain gives way to our reptilian brain – or “flips the lid,” a term coined by Dr. Dan Siegel.
Dr. Kishel’s guidance and insights helped me feel more connected to my physical self. It was like getting cozier with my brain, this mysterious black box of consciousness. By understanding how my brain processes stress, it becomes a less confounding place for my thoughts to call home. Getting to know ourselves better and the tools we have simply through bodily awareness can be empowering and contribute to long term stress management.
All this being said – this doesn’t mean that the onus is always on the individual to process stress. Systemic issues like sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, and others are serious contributors to life experiences that add to stress, anxiety, and depression. These issues can’t be solved with a breathing exercise or a better awareness of our brain’s reptilian response. But staying in touch with our bodies can help us to function another day, rolling up our sleeves to tackle infrastructural issues with lids (somewhat) firmly in place.
From Laurel – Sharing information is a start, but we need more.
I want to be clear – this well-being learning series was amazing. I’m grateful for everyone who showed up ready for our open, honest conversations. Talking about mental health to share information, build skills, and reduce the stigma of speaking up is incredibly important. But this series also showed me how much more we need to do. Most of our sessions seemed to end with questions about action: how do I implement this in my workplace, who can I call when my team member is in crisis, how do I find treatment for myself? There are some answers to those questions, and full credit to our presenters who came prepared to provide them. But the reality is those answers are often unsatisfying and heavily laced with qualifiers like “if your organization lets you” and “if you can afford it.”
There are good reasons for that. Fire culture is changing, but the suck it up and work philosophy is still widespread. Our work is physically and emotionally demanding, and often difficult to explain to loved ones outside the fire community. A significant part of our workforce is seasonal, making healthcare access sketchy and communication difficult. Many of us live and work in rural areas where resources are scarce even when we know what we need. And even those in the best case scenarios are battling a difficult economy and floundering healthcare system.
We need more. And there are people out there working for it. It’s easy to be pessimistic, but when I follow the advice of Mr. Rogers’ mother and “look for the helpers” I see people who give me hope. The 2023 WTREX brought in clinical social worker Virginia Avery as a resource for an event that can be mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing. Virginia is also a former hotshot, and provided an honest, compassionate session on tools for firefighters working to address their mental health and that of their colleagues. The NWCG Mental Health Subcommittee is doing important work in integrating mental health issues into fire operations. Grassroots Wildland Firefighters may not speak primarily about mental health, but fighting for fair wages and workers’ rights is mental health advocacy in my book. And I personally am lucky to know many members of our fire community who aren’t afraid to give real answers to “how are you doing” and are brave enough to speak openly about their own experiences and even psychiatric medications (shout out to bupropion!).
We need to keep talking (and maybe singing too) about mental health, and that includes providing learning opportunities like this one. I hope that continuing this conversation helps each of us push just a little harder for workplaces that encourage us all to thrive and are there with concrete resources when we need a hand.
The Fire Networks will continue hosting opportunities for practitioners to learn more and participate in conversations about mental health in our field. If you have resources or materials you recommend or that have supported your mental health and wellbeing, feel free to suggest them in the comments.
For a list of featured resources including books, podcasts, websites, and other materials shared during this year’s Practitioner Wellbeing learning group series, click here.
If you need resources or support:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Free, 24/7 confidential support. 1-800-273-8255
- SAMHSA National Helpline: Call 1-877-SAMHSA7 (1-877-726-4727) to help locate mental health treatment services in your area. The helpline is free, confidential, and operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- The Disaster Distress Helpline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every single day of the year. The helpline can be reached at 1-800-985-5990 or by texting TalkWithUs to 66746. This hotline is available to anyone (including you) and you can call for yourself or for someone else.
- The NWCG Mental Health Subcommittee provides mental health resources for those working in wildland fire.
Seek out a mental health professional near you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.