Others’ opinion: Firefighters fight the fire within

Published 8:26 am Wednesday, May 9, 2018

For every traumatic call, there’s a firefighter that turns to the bottle or lets the burning emotional damage burn within them, leading many others to suicide. They’re the outcomes Virginia Fire Chief Allen Lewis has heard about Minnesota departments, and his own.

Russ Carlson, a firefighter in Virginia, was granted workman’s compensation by the city as he battled post-traumatic stress disorder. It took him almost nine months on the job to realize a January call triggered his PTSD and was preventing him from doing his job.

He’s one of the rare few of the local heroes in red to take such an action. Carlson is supported, he said, by Lewis, who was standing by his side during a recent mental health forum hosted by Sen. Tina Smith’s office.

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As a member of the MnFIRE Initiative, Lewis is on the administrative front lines of battling mental health issues for statewide fire departments. Studies, according to MnFIRE, have shown firefighters are at an increased risk of PTSD and subsequent triggers than the general population and discharged war veterans.

It becomes a worse problem for volunteer firefighters that have limited resources like workman’s compensation to take the time and treat their issues. There’s also the tough-guy stigma firefighters need to overcome.

The work of MnFIRE is invaluable and the acceptance of PTSD as a mental illness on equal standing with physical illness is a major step in improving mental health and cutting down on substance abuse and suicide rates among first responders.

But firefighters are just one example of the internal fire burning with those afflicted with mental health issues. Millions across the country battle anxiety, depression and PTSD. Many of them did not go to war or into burning buildings, but their struggle remains equally as important.

Good mental health care is a critical piece of the puzzle in Minnesota, where substance abuse has developed into a epidemic and suicide rates remain an issue in need of addressing.

Raising awareness to the importance mental health is a start. The state needs more initiatives like MnFIRE and more leaders like Lewis to recognize the importance of tearing down the walls of stigmas. It also needs more brave people like Russ Carlson to tell their story and lead by example in breaking stereotypes and social personas.

The more communities understand and accept mental illness, the easier it will be for those fighting their internal fires.

Mesabi Daily News