I’m a professional supporting fire service staff    

Introduction

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Advice for professionals

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If you find yourself in the fortunate position of providing support to fire and rescue staff, we hope the information below will be helpful. 

It is based on the experience of the team at the Rivers Centre for NHS Lothian who have had the privilege of providing psychological treatment to emergency responders for more than 20 years. Please also explore the information and resources on the rest of the site.

Advice for professionals

Be familiar with the role and culture
Many emergency service staff feel ambivalent about accessing support and so it helps if they feel you know something about the job they do and the challenges they face. This doesn’t need to be a comprehensive understanding of the organisational structure, role and type of incidents they attend; they’re not expecting you to be a quasi- responder.

However, it is a sign of respect and will help with making a supportive relationship if to try to understand their work role and context. Use this site to familiarise yourself with their role, be curious, ask questions (especially if you don’t understand the jargon they use) and be aware of the other support services available to staff and their families.

In return, you’ll find they value your professional expertise and are usually motivated to engage in psychological treatment which makes working with them very rewarding.  
The idea of psychological injury
The language we use matters. It is a way of reducing stigma by normalising the fact that some occupational roles involve exposure to psychological hazards while retaining hope for recovery. As we say in the Lifelines #10 Essentials, emergency responders are at risk of psychological injury, but psychological injury is not inevitable and psychological injuries can heal.
Understand risk and protective factors
Providing psychoeducation is super important, both about mental health and wellbeing and about the things that usually protect them at work. Responders are often bewildered and ashamed of how they’re feeling, so a key task is to help them understand why they’re feeling as they are.

If you understand how their Protective Armour works, then you can help them make sense of what it is about this incident, or this time, that is has made it hard for them to bounce back. And you can help them regain their resilience.
Promote resilience
Most emergency responders (indeed most people) show remarkable resilience in the face of adversity and exposure to potentially traumatic events. When they get injured, our task as helpers is to do what we can to restore and enhance resilience.

Familiarise yourself and encourage them to look at the information on the Why I’m OK most of the time? section.

Perhaps the thing that has made the difference to their ability to cope comes from a change in their circumstances outside work, e.g. not being able to exercise as much because of an injury or caring responsibilities. Always make sure they’ve got more tools than exercise in their self-care box
Stigma
Stigma, and in particular self-stigma, is still a big problem for emergency service staff. Being strong, a fixer, someone who helps others, is often a big part of how they seem themselves and how they’re viewed by others.

When they get psychologically injured and become unwell, the shame and confusion they feel about this happening is often as big an issue as the injury itself. For some it is the main issue, and they can experience a collapse in their sense of self.  

Remind them that we all have mental health and responders are not invincible. Show them the films on this site of other responders  talking about how self-stigma affected them. Encourage them to talk to colleagues if and when they can. Use (and persist with!) self-compassion strategies to challenge self-criticism, asking them how they would treat their best mate if they were struggling. How they would talk to them, encourage them, support them.

The same responders who found it difficult to ask for help can become passionate about helping others once they’ve benefitted from support. Finding ways to act on this, to give something back, can be an important part of their recovery. If the person you're supporting takes on this role, remind them to take care of themselves. It can be hard once they've become a mental health champion to ask for further help if they need it.
Watch out for under-reporting
For several reasons your responder client may play down the difficulties they’re having. They often worry that they’re wasting your time or that other people need or are more deserving of help. They may feel ashamed or afraid that their career is over.

This means that you may not get the full story of how much they’re struggling. Consider using questionnaires (not least because they give the message that they’re not the only person to feel like this) and ask direct questions about symptoms, especially suicidal thoughts.

The avoidance behaviour which characterises PTSD may not be obvious with emergency responder clients are they continue to “run towards danger” at work. Watch out and ask about safety behaviours, emotional and cognitive avoidance and numbing, including through alcohol and other substances.
Not only PTSD
Although PTSD is a common injury following trauma, it is not the only post traumatic injury or disorder your emergency responder client may sustain. They may have post traumatic depression, a traumatic grief reaction or difficulties unrelated to trauma exposure.

Organisational stress is a common problem for emergency responders and as well as their work role, they're still dealing with all the everyday challenges of life. Like all of us, they may have a history of childhood adversity with the associated resilience and challenges this brings.

Don't assume that because they work for an emergency service then they must have PTSD. Do your assessment carefully and match your intervention to this.
Do the trauma work when it’s needed
When it is PTSD, lots of things can get in the way of doing trauma-focused work. Individual factors may include a tendency to minimise their difficulties and/or disengage when they’re feeling a bit better, or the need to address feelings of shame or depressive symptoms. In addition, there are often organisational issues to deal with and the responder may be feeling angry, misunderstood, or let down by the service. These are important issues that need to be addressed but don’t let them distract you from doing trauma-focused treatment when it’s needed. Untreated PTSD is likely to be aggravating these stressors and the person’s ability to cope with them.  

It may be difficult to treat and resolve PTSD in the context of a return to operational duties. The prospect of a return to work and further trauma exposure can maintain and compound PTSD symptoms for some. This needs to be assessed carefully and discussed with the client and occupational health colleagues (see below).

If trauma work is put on hold because someone is going through the ill health retirement process then it is important to revisit the trauma processing work once a decision is reached to address and treat the residual symptoms of PTSD.
Communicating with the organisation
If you are providing a service under a contract, then you should be clear about how and what you communicate with the organisation.

If you are working independently from the organisation, there may be times when you’re asked by your client to contact it, for example, to request an adjustment to their duties. Your client may give consent for you to talk directly with their manager, but you should be cautious about this. It is usually best to share information though the clinical staff working in the occupational health department. Their expertise is in providing medical advice to the service and managers, based on discussions with GPs and other professionals.

If your client is unable to return to work, they may be referred for consideration of ill health retirement. Your letters/reports will be shared with the Doctor (Independently Qualified Medical Practitioner) who makes this assessment.
Can they go back to work?
Often, yes. Or they can remain at work while they are receiving support/treatment. Being at work, with colleagues can be what sustains someone through a period of psychological ill health or be the thing that completes their recovery.
Ill health retirement
If your client is unable to return to work, they may be referred for consideration of ill health retirement and assessed by a Doctor (Independently Qualified Medical Practitioner). Part of the IQMP’s role is to establish whether:
  • They have had all the recommended / available treatment for their disorder     
  • They are considered to be permanently disabled by their condition and therefore unable to work as a fire fighter
  • Their condition is related to their work (an industrial injury)
Bear this in mind when you are providing reports and, where appropriate, address these issues directly.

The ill health retirement process can take several months and is often the source of considerable stress and distress for the individual, especially when it is part of an absence management procedure. Try to help them understand that however personal it feels, the reason the process is so rigorous is to prevent and protect people against unfair dismissal on the grounds of ill health.  

Being ill health retired, without completing their 30 years, can be a source of disappointment and shame for some responders. If possible, encourage them to think about how they can celebrate their service with colleagues and family. If not, acknowledge the loss of leaving early and in this way. If civic service and the camaraderie of being in a team are important to them, help them think about where they might get this now.

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