Reflecting on mental health (Part 1 of 2)

A firefighter defends a public cabin ahead of significant fire activity on the Swan Lake Fire in Alaska. (DOI/Katy O'Hara)


This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week. Hopefully you're seeing social media posts and webpages getting the word out. This topic is often uncomfortable to talk and write about. It still deserves our time and attention, so I’d like to pause for a moment and reflect on what we can do to understand, support, and care for our firefighters and emergency responders throughout the year. 

Asking questions like ‘are we doing enough to support our firefighters both in and out of fire season?’ and ‘have we made it okay to ask for help?’ is necessary for improving the culture around mental health awareness in the wildland fire community. Can we move the conversation forward and help reduce the stigma around mental health?

As I complete my 15th season both on the fire line and supporting wildland fire, I’ve lost count of the number of friends, peers and co-workers that have died both on the fire line and off, including alcohol related accidents and suicide. Even as I was drafting this post, a team member and a dedicated firefighter, overwhelmed by his posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, took his own life. 

I can’t answer the why, but I can be open to the conversation. I can ask my friends, peers and co-workers how they are doing. I can notice changes in behavior. I can seek counseling and guidance for myself. I can be part of the culture that changes the tide.

Katy O’Hara is the Partnership Program Lead for the Office of Wildland Fire. Katy also serves as a Public Information Officer with the Pacific Northwest Type 1 Incident Management Teams and is an active member of the Navy Reserve.