Futures Recovery

Assessing the Risk of Mental Health Disorders for California Wildfire First Responders

Many of us take the stress of our jobs home with us. But, when your work involves dangerous, hazardous, and draining conditions and traumatic situations in which people’s livelihood, lives, and families are destroyed all around you, the effects of that stress may not simply melt away in time. For first responders, routinely facing these types of strenuous scenarios puts them at a higher risk of behavioral health disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

And, when it comes to time to process, many first responders simply don’t have the luxury. According to a study reported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 69% of emergency medical services (EMS) professionals never have enough time to recover between traumatic events. 

Unfortunately, natural and human-caused disasters do not respect the healing times deserving of first responders. Currently, this very concept is being played out all over the world, as first responders reel from lingering impacts of COVID-19, while balancing other local needs within their communities. 

One of the most current and topical examples is with California’s wildfires. With 560 wildfires burning throughout the state and at least 100,000 people under evacuation orders, an already stressed population of first responders (from needs required for the pandemic), are working around the clock—and then some. What will be the long-term behavioral health impacts they face? 

Going back to the research, it’s important to understand that while depression, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts are real and likely outcomes for some first responders—help is not only available, but it also can lead to a fulfilling, enjoyable, and productive life. 

At Futures Recovery Healthcare we understand the unique challenges first responders face in and out of recovery. We have the comprehensive support systems in place to help them navigate the specific mental health treatment needed to move forward, and heal from non-stop exposure to trauma. 

A Closer Look at the Long-Term Effects of Continuous Exposure to Trauma

With the California wildfires as an example, it’s important to remember, that in addition to COVID-19 and various community-level events, many first responders—firefighters in particular—have had several straight years of non-stop fires to manage. 

Reaching as far back as 2017, California’s wildfires have expanded from Napa and Sonoma Counties’ Atlas, Tubbs, Nuns, and Redwood Valley Complex fires, to 2018’s Ventura, Los Angeles, Shasta, and Trinity Counties’ Woosley and Carr fires. Then, 2019’s Sonoma County’s Kincade fire. 

Mid-August of this year, first responders, including firefighters and aircraft from 10 different states banded together to fight the July Complex, Blue Jay, Red Salmo Complex, and Apple fires (among others) reaching from one end of the state to the other. At the time this was written, the Shady and Glass fires continue to rage in Northern California, evacuating upwards of 17,000 people.

On top of four straight years of aggressive fires, many of the first responders handling 2020’s barrage of wildfires lacked the full resources needed to do their jobs effectively. This, according to SAMHSA, is a significant contributing factor to triggering behavioral health disorders in first responders. Research demonstrates that not having enough resources, job-related information, and being required to supervise too many people put first responders at a higher risk for depression and PTSD. 

But, there are additional behavioral health risks to consider as well, which include:

  • Staying at a scene of disaster for long periods of time
  • Being one of the first emergency personnel on the scene
  • Having assignments that are long-lasting
  • Enduring long periods of traumatic and hazardous sights and sounds
  • Working with victims of trauma (especially children) in which morbid details are navigated and discussed
  • Lacking appropriate and supportive leadership

In addition to resulting behavioral health disorders such as depression and PTSD, the U.S. Fire Administration also suggests the impact of RET “repeated exposure trauma.” RET, according to research, is a more common outcome of firefighters’ exposure to a series of traumatic events—the California wildfires as a prime example—opposed to one single event. 

Signs and Symptoms of Behavioral Health Disorders in First Responders

If you or someone you care for has been involved in the California wildfires or exposed to a similar type of repeat trauma, it’s helpful to recognize the signs and symptoms of possible resulting behavioral health disorders. 

Symptoms of RET include:

  • Desensitization
  • Irritability
  • Cynicism
  • Flashbacks

Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Re-experiencing Traumatic Situations 

Flashbacks in which a person feels like they are “reliving” a traumatic event can occur, combined with nightmares and being triggered and startled by certain smells, sounds, and sights. Physical symptoms such as rapid breathing and sweating are also typical. 

  • Avoiding Situations and People

Feelings of guilt, depression, or detachment can lead to avoidance and isolation of crowds and situations that feel similar to a specific traumatic event. A person may even stop engaging in hobbies and activities they used to enjoy and pull away from people they care about.

  • Demonstrating Hyper Arousal

This can manifest as problems sleeping and concentrating. A person may feel as if they need to keep their back to the wall when in public or unfamiliar spaces. Loud or specific noises may easily startle them and create a feeling of “being on edge” or even intense anger. 

Depression

  • Feeling hopelessness
  • Ongoing feelings of loss and guilt
  • Experiencing insomnia
  • Abandoning hygiene, not caring about personal appearance 

If any of the signs and symptoms above are accompanied by poor performance at work or school, aggressive and risky behaviors, giving away personal and sentimental items, or thoughts and expressions of “not wanting to live anymore,” or  “feeling like dying,” these can be indications of suicidal ideation, and should be taken very seriously. 

If you or someone you love is exhibiting these behaviors, it’s important to seek professional help immediately. 

Barriers to First Responders Seeking Mental Health Support

Despite the fact that first responders and firefighters, like those battling the current California wildfire, likely experience “secondary trauma” or “compassion fatigue,” combined with RET, PTSD, and depression, they face several barriers when it comes to mental health treatment. 

First, there is a strong stigma among first responders that to seek help for mental and behavioral health issues is to be a failure, or not strong enough. 

In fact, the 2018 SAMHSA periodical, The Dialogue Volume 14 Issue 1, states this:

“The first responder is not going to ask you for help. The behavioral health professional has to go to them and overcome a strong resistance and stigma attached to seeking psychological help. Strength and the ability to endure physical and mental extremes are highly valued, and anything less is viewed as weakness. Behavioral health professionals with particular training in the peer counseling model of providing stress awareness and resiliency-building practices would be of great value to the first responder community.”

Additionally, finding access to the type of specialty care needed may be difficult to find or obtain. Having a direct line to mental health resources through their leadership, may not only be problematic for first responders because of stigma-related concerns or unresponsiveness, but it can also lead to added and increased stress. This only exacerbates depression, PTSD, RET, and additional disorders for which first responders are more susceptible to developing. 

Overcoming Barriers and Seeking Help

If you or someone you love is ready to get help, it’s important to seek out mental health resources that provide evidence-based therapies, comprehensive and compassionate care, and licensed professionals who are highly-trained and skilled in helping first responders. 

Futures Recovery Healthcare Hero’s Ascent First Responder’s program offers a safe and non-judgmental environment for males and females 18 and over struggling with mental health disorders. Here, we address Depressive Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, Personality Disorders, Bipolar and Related Disorders by using clinical, medical and psychiatric interventions and support. Our interdisciplinary team approach allows patients to receive holistic services and care. Our goal is to help develop and establish a journey of healing and a life worth living. 

Whether you have been on the frontlines of the California wildfires, or are a first responder who is experiencing the dual effects of COVID-19 and local disasters, you are not alone. Many have walked before you, and many have prevailed with much-needed support. 

With help, you can successfully overcome trauma in whatever forms it takes. You can have a life that is fulfilling and happy. 

If you are ready to get help and begin a life in peace and joy, Futures is here for you. Contact us confidentially online or by phone at 866-804-2098.