Can Volunteer Firefighting Trigger Depression?

Can Volunteer Firefighting Trigger Depression?

Published on September 5, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

With a majority of fire departments relying on the assistance of volunteers, the safety of our society hinges upon the support of non-career first responders. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, approximately 54% of firefighters are volunteers. While this support is essential, the lack of financial compensation often leaves volunteers without much recourse in the way of health benefits.

Along with exposure to traumatic experiences, volunteer firefighters also have an increased risk of experiencing long-term depression. When compared with career firefighters, studies found volunteer firefighters were much more likely to experience the onset of depressive tendencies.

With risk for mental health disorders being so much higher for volunteers, it is important to understand why volunteering as a first responder can trigger depression, and how it affects individuals coping with alcohol and/or substance use disorders.

Why People Volunteer

Before getting into the underlying risks, examining why people volunteer for first response work is essential to understanding the expectations vs. the realities of the job. There are a great number of reasons to volunteer: gaining experience to become a career firefighter, moral obligations, incarcerated individuals seeking opportunities to re-enter society, and so on.

While firefighting isn’t a job pursued with the hopes of securing an “easy gig,” not everyone is aware of the emotional toll it can take on their well-being. Assuming the role of a volunteer firefighter should be accompanied with a readiness to seek out mental health resources, as individuals who fail to do so are more prone to the onset of clinical depression.

Making a plan and communicating the risks with their emotional support system (friends, family, etc.) can act as buffers to seeking out help when one’s mental health issues begin trending towards crisis. Without acknowledging these risks beforehand, depression can seep in through the cracks of “toughing it out.”

How Volunteering Affects Mental Health

Volunteer firefighters experience significant stressors from the responsibilities and structure of their positions. Along with the exposure to prolonged traumatic events, volunteer firefighters also endure the socioeconomic stresses of a volunteer position. Working with a lack of income, no guaranteed healthcare, and limited retirement options, these first responders must navigate the financial drawbacks of volunteering.

With few options other than working two jobs, fatigue often grips volunteer firefighters. Feelings of exhaustion can effectively kickstart a cycle of depression. With low energy impeding a volunteer’s ability to recharge through exercises in mindfulness, the only contact they make with the outside world may be through work.

Viewing the world through the lens of a workplace distorts our perspective of life, especially for first response work. Without activities to strengthen their mental health, volunteers may enter a vicious cycle of depression and self-medication with alcohol and/or substance use.

How and Why Volunteers Should Seek Help

Understanding the toll that volunteers can expect helps enable them to prepare for the immense undertaking of firefighting. Education and mental health training may be key for volunteer firefighters in managing the onset of depression. The fatigue and burnout associated with volunteer firefighting can only be mitigated through anticipation of this feeling.

Understanding the likelihood of mental exhaustion helps keep volunteers and their support systems honest about their limits. The truth about first response work is that the mental welfare of the worker directly controls their ability to secure safety for themselves and the general public. Volunteer firefighters should also be aware of the resources at their disposal.

With local helplines available for mental health, addiction, and suicide prevention, seeking open counsel in times of crisis can be life-changing. Volunteer firefighters are encouraged to save these helplines as contacts prior to crisis, so they are easily accessible whenever these disorders are triggered. Additionally, any volunteer firefighter battling depression might benefit from checking in with an addiction counselor.

If they become dependent on alcohol and/or substance use, volunteer firefighters may be at risk for abusing their means of self-medication. Within each firefighter exists the pure intention of good — but after hours/months/years of exposure to extreme destruction, even the best of intentions can be corroded. If and when first responders become desensitized, the innermost desire to help others remains, although it may be dormant.

The mental well-being of first responders is so crucial, and their ability to empathize with themselves and others will improve their efficacy in the field. Volunteer firefighters are worth more than a salary, health insurance fee, or the cost of property damage. In order for them to help save lives, our society must acknowledge the challenges they face, along with the immense virtue they can bring to those in need.

Nearly one-third of individuals with depression also struggle with alcohol and/or substance abuse, but whether this occurs from changes in the brain or self-medication isn’t clear. Depression can be debilitating and often requires professional help or guidance to overcome — otherwise, it may lead to worsening symptoms and an increased risk of substance use or self-harm. At True Recovery, our First Responders Wellness program addresses each client’s levels of physical, emotional, and mental health needs. Because first responders are regularly exposed to dangerous and disturbing situations, we also focus on helping clients develop healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with stress, trauma, and other difficult feelings. The path to recovery and healing is just a phone call away. To learn more, please contact our staff 24/7 or call True Recovery at (888) 743-0490.