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Hurting Heroes: PTSD rates soar among firefighters, new program aims to reduce stigma

Hurting Heroes: PTSD rates soar among firefighters, new program aims to reduce stigma

You call. They come. Some calls tougher than others.

“I had a baby. We had to do CPR and everything and ended up not saving [the baby],” said Paul Bias, a firefighter/paramedic at South Lake Tahoe Fire Rescue.

For some, experiences like this can wear on the mind.

“You do question sometimes whether you did everything correctly,” said Bias. “I put a lot on myself.”

Feelings of guilt, anger, self-blame all start to weigh on these heroes — many suffering in silence.

“My first traumatic car wreck, I was told, ‘If you can’t handle it, suck it up or get out,’” recalled Captain Leslie Asbury.

“That’s been the culture for my whole career,” said SLTFR Battalion Chief, Tim Spencer. “The fire service has always been the macho, get over it, you know. Come back from a bad call, sit back down at the dinner table, and finish dinner.”

Spencer has been a firefighter for 36 years. Throughout his career, he’s seen many of his brothers and sisters turning to alcohol or other substances to cope with the stress.

“It’s just like this horror show of slides, and it adds up,” said Spencer.

A recent Florida State University study shows as many as 37 percent of firefighters could suffer from symptoms of PTSD — that could be higher than rates seen in combat veterans.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom suffer from PTSD.

In that same study, nearly half of current and retired firefighters reported having suicidal thoughts—that’s just about 12 times greater than rates among the general public.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports about 4 percent of Americans have experienced suicidal thoughts.

When one of Captain Asbury’s colleagues attempted suicide, she says she felt her former department did not handle the case well.

She knew she had to do something.

Trauma-informed yoga—it’s just one part of the behavioral health program Captain Asbury developed with Chief Spencer to raise awareness about PTSD and suicide inside the fire service.

“I want to erase that stigma and just make sure people reach out before it’s too late,” said Asbury.

The program is a first-of-its-kind for SLTFR — giving these heroes some of the tools they need to heal their invisible wounds.

“There are definitely ways in which we can be more empowered and have more control over the ways that our body responds to stress,” said Emily Winter, Trauma Yoga Instructor and co-executive director of Firefly Yoga International, a program designed to help trauma survivors.

Trauma yoga teaches trauma survivors how to maintain present moment awareness. Winter says trauma yoga has been scientifically proven to improve symptoms of PTSD.

“We hope that individuals can feel more empowered to take some of their own healing into their own hands [and] to recognize when maybe they are starting to feel anxious or a little bit activated or triggered,” said Winter. “Then they can intervene on their own, right in that moment, with a self-regulation exercise like breathing technique that is known to stimulate the para-sympathetic nervous system, which calms the individual and brings them into a more restful state.”

The behavioral health program is almost a year old now, and Captain Asbury says she’s starting to see the fire culture slowly change.

“They are starting to be a little bit more gentle,” said Asbury. “The education is really starting to work.”

Firefighters are used to helping others. But in the end, the biggest hurdle may be convincing them to help themselves.

“You have to encourage each other that it’s okay,” said Bias.

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