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Monday, November 30, 2020

Faculty & Staff

Professor’s report raises concerns over firefighter mental health

“I have an obligation to do everything I am willing and able to do, but there is simply too much, and that is hard to wrap my mind around,” said Blake Hughes, a rookie firefighter. | Courtesy of Blake Hughes

Hurricanes and natural disasters affect many lives — especially those trying to save families and homes.

Supply chain management professor and volunteer firefighter Elizabeth Anderson-Fletcher is a co-author of The Yellow Ribbon report, which discusses the awareness of emotional health and suicide risks of firefighters involving their everyday jobs.

Fletcher said there are still people within the firefighter community who do not understand the problem of suicide, but she hopes that will no longer be the case.

“If we don’t deal with that stress overload, it could manifest into behavioral health problems, such as self-medicating through drugs or alcohol, depression or anxiety,” Fletcher said. “It could lead to marital problems, substance abuse or ultimately suicide.”

According to the Yellow Ribbon Report, there are various signs of mental, physical, emotional and behavioral symptom changes in an individual. Fletcher said that each case is different, and that some symptoms could hit a firefighter hard enough that they would not return back to the service.

Fletcher became a firefighter for the Cypress Creek Volunteer Fire Department Engine 21 in Northwest Harris County six years ago, and has noticed the impact of the job on fellow firefighters, she said.

Blake Hughes, a rookie firefighter with Cypress Creek Fire Department Engine 22, said that as a volunteer, he has seen a number of people lose their homes and have to change the course of their lives.

“I have an obligation to do everything I am willing and able to do, but there is simply too much, and that is hard to wrap my mind around,” said Hughes.

Hurricane Harvey was one of the most recent disasters that firefighters had to face — at home and on the job.

Hughes said that countless members of the department lost their homes but had to leave those things behind to help others that were impacted by the storm.

Hughes said the aftermath of Harvey affected his health in multiple ways.

“The negative effects were simply seeing people’s entire lives uprooted and set out on the curb to be thrown away, because it was all ruined,” Hughes said. “The positive effects were seeing people help their neighbors and friends, and even people they didn’t know, because they had nothing left to lose.”

During Harvey, Hughes said that he saw numerous groups wanting to lend a hand and help those in need.

“Working with the other first responders really proved that the brotherhood prevails through everything,” Hughes said.

For some first responders, the negative aspects of the job can become too much.

Fletcher said a battalion chief in Florida who died by suicide almost a year ago wrote a post on Facebook before he took his life. Fletcher said he mentioned in the post that firefighter post-traumatic stress disorder is real, and the memories of death haunted him daily.

He was a 27-year veteran of the fire service.

“In fire departments that have lost members to suicide, in many cases, nobody had any clue,” Fletcher said.

It is the coworkers’ duty to identify the signs of suicide and to provide their colleagues with a support system, she said.

“We want a culture where not only is it encouraged to talk about these things,” Fletcher said. “It is expected, and it’s our duty to ask. See something, say something.”

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