Disclaimer: This article deals with the subject of mental health and mentions suicide. This can be triggering for some. If you or someone you love needs support, Lifeline (13 11 14) is available 24/7, free of charge.

As Australia braces for another bushfire season, new search from Edith Cowan University revealed how reeling our volunteer firefighters are from the effects of the catastrophic 2019/20 bushfires.

Of the nearly 65,000 workers who helped during the Black summer bush fires in NSW, 78% were volunteers. In our study, 58 of the volunteer firefighters who responded explained how the experience impacted their mental health.

Almost half reported living with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety. Some 11% had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And 5.5% revealed they had made suicide plans. One described a suicide attempt.

Our findings support others Australian research which found that 4.6% of volunteers who responded to the Black Summer bushfires had seriously considered ending their lives within a year of the fires.

Yet many do not ask for help. As one volunteer firefighter puts it:

If the organization doesn’t care enough to ask, why am I going to tell them?

Volunteer firefighters felt pressure to appear immune to the trauma.
Jacob Carracher, Author provided

A cumulative mental assessment

Volunteer firefighters described the cumulative impact repeated exposure to bush fires.

It was an extended period of nothing but gunnery activity, just focusing on that next deployment, that next fire, with very little time to rest and recover. And with each new fire, I noticed that my mental state took a bigger hit.

The subsequent challenges associated with the COVID pandemic further eroded resilience and led to a decrease in the number of volunteer firefighters.

The Australian Institute for Health and Welfare recently reported that as a result of the 2019-2020 bushfires, more than half of Australian adults felt anxious or worried about bushfires and there has been a 10-15% increase in calls to the Lifeline crisis hotline.

But despite the obvious impact on the well-being of the volunteer firefighters we spoke to, less than half had requested mental health support in the year following the fires. This reveals a lack of progress in supporting the mental health and well-being of emergency responders. A firefighter expressed a feeling of hopelessness:

I didn’t think about suicide. But I don’t really care about living.

Employee assistance is not enough

Experience of the 2009 “Black Saturday” bush fires in Victoria has shown that the impact on the mental health of those responding to large bushfires is often complex and prolonged.

Firefighters and other support staff were at increased risk of developing PTSD, depression, anxiety, and complicated bereavement compared to the general public, and when these issues were poorly treated, they were at increased risk for suicide.

Yet ten years later, volunteer firefighters still face the same problems.

We saw it with Black Saturday. We saw him again with Black Summer. How many times do we still have to see it? How many of us still have to be hurt? How many of us still have to lose our jobs? Our families? Our lives? What will it take for our them [the organisations] really value us?

The majority of volunteer firefighters we spoke to felt that their organization had not provided enough of the ‘right kind’ of support, with many simply providing a link to a Employee Assistance Program.

While such programs have a role to play, they risk being seen as symbolic; especially when they are subcontracted to stakeholders who share similar experiences. Access duration was also an issue; many volunteers said they could only access three free counseling sessions before having to seek other support.

A toxic male culture is also associated with many emergency service organizations. Seeking help with mental health is still viewed as weak, career limiting or even career ending.

The one time I actually admitted I was having a hard time, someone in a managerial position told me that if I couldn’t hack it, I had to return my uniform.

There is a perceived need for firefighters to be impervious to the impact of trauma exposure. Only 15% of the volunteers we spoke to who asked for help did so through their organizations.

The power of peer support

When we asked what would be most helpful in promoting wellness, the message was clear: Volunteer firefighters wanted to talk about what they had been through with someone who “got it”.

Sharing the lived experience offers another kind of support for many stakeholders who have not benefited from more traditional counseling programs.

The idea of peer support is to harness the lived experience of people to support others. Peer support has long been provided informally by friends and family and through community support groups and local organizations.

But in recent years we have seen lived experiences shared through more formal methods such as clinical settings and suicide prevention in the community. Studies have shown patients supported by the sharing of lived experiences are less likely to be readmitted to hospital with acute mental health problems.

A key lesson from the Black Summer bushfires is the need to empower local communities and voluntary organizations to provide peer support in a safe and effective manner.

To feel safe

Leaders, too, need help so that they can confidently develop an understanding of mental health and foster an understanding of mental health. psychologically safe culture in their workplace or organization.

Part of building a psychologically safe environment is reflected in the way people present themselves to each other. For voluntary organizations to be healthy and equitable places where everyone can thrive and feel valued, leaders must focus on creating an environment that reflects these values.

The Emergency Services Foundation recently completed a pilot program called Leading for better mental health, which helps volunteer firefighters no longer fear the negative consequences of seeking help for their mental well-being.

Bushfires will continue to have a devastating impact on our natural environment in the summers to come. We must work so that those who answer them do not suffer the same fate.The conversation

Erin smith, Associate Professor of Disaster and Emergency Response, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, Edith Cowan University; Brigitte Larkin, PhD student, Edith Cowan University, and Lisa holmes, Senior Lecturer, Paramedical Sciences, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read it original article.