Everybody’s Aware – it’s time for Mental Health Action.

14 mins read

I’ve done quite a bit of thinking about a common phrase we all use – ‘mental health awareness’. I’d like to make an argument toward creating more ‘mental health action’.

On June 27th, 2014, the US Senate declared the month of June PTSD Awareness Month and Senator Kent Conrad lead the charge to have June 27th recognized as the national day of PTSD awareness. He did that in honour of a North Dakota National Guard member who died of suicide after two tours of duty in Afghanistan. Certainly, a noble cause and focus point at the national level. Canada has adopted the same two well-needed commitments; a day and a month to examine the need for front-line support after our people have experienced trauma.

Here’s the trouble with ‘mental health awareness’:

Mental health awareness usually isn’t married to movement.

Let me give you an example. This year, our city was supposed to host a morning in June to ‘build awareness’ for PTSD. A flag raising, some opportunities for stakeholders to get on the mic. The week before that was set to happen, the event was cancelled. Not rescheduled – cancelled. An important ministry announcement was set to take place at the same time, so the event needed to be outright cancelled.

Now, you might be wondering what that important ministry announcement was. Believe it or not, it wasn’t a declaration toward solving poverty. It wasn’t a statement to solve eating disorders in our community. The important ministry announcement was with respect to a new housing development going up in a neighboring community.

Let that ring out for a minute. We’re going to flat-out cancel the awareness day for politics. We absolutely must take on a specific mindset. Knowing that our awareness days can be cast aside, we must remember one crucial idea.

Nobody’s coming, it’s up to us.

We hung up this flag from 30 Seconds Out in our Jiu Jitsu gym. We did that to build a very specific mindset.

At the end of the day, you are directly responsible for your own operational readiness. We’ve talked, written and badgered on about that online for a few years now. I think, for the most part, the people who identify with this statement will have a good idea of where I’m headed with the rest of this writing.

On the grappling mats, you get a direct reflection of your operational readiness. If you don’t train cardio, you won’t have a gas tank – and gas tanks win fights. If you don’t lift, you’ll be overpowered. If you don’t study technique, you will not know how to speak the language. Most importantly, if you don’t show up to train, you won’t have the experience necessary to progress. All of these metrics are completely and only up to you.

This is precisely the mindset that we need to adopt toward bolstering the back end of our services.

Our people deserve it.

The work won’t be done by anybody else.

‘Mental health action’ needs to take the place of mental health awareness.

Everybody is perfectly aware of the problem.

Our people are suffering. It’s estimated that 30 percent of responders end up developing behavioural health complications from their time in service. With the staggering number of our peers who are at risk, the evidence is in our fire halls. It’s in our squad cars. The real-world impact is on the back of the ambulance, between the calls. And certainly, I know now that the action we need to be able to advance on this problem is not going to come from anybody else but us.

There’s no manual for this.

Unfortunately, the guidebook for solving mental health issues within first responder communities hasn’t been written. Of course, I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek about that, but the point stands. There’s no one-way-street to follow here. Nonetheless, we must aim at something or nothing will happen.

Certainly, we know that to be the case – nothing will happen if we don’t make the move. Nobody’s coming.

To start, we can turn to each other. Not in the sit in a salt cave and talk about our feelings way, either. If we take a tally of our needs, we’ll have a good place to start. I recently had a chat with Assistant Deputy Chief Gary Bridge of London Fire, who helped to organize a voluntary, organization-wide survey for his people. That baseline set a track to help aim the wellness programming for his department. That way, the movement on operational readiness programming is anchored to the people it directly affects.

Actionable ideas.

In the case of Assistant Deputy Chief Bridge, the work was available. Despite the obstacles that surely stood in the way of that project, a person with a formal leadership position is going to have an easier go of executing on moving forward. So, that begs the question;

How do we make moves from within the chain of command?

There’s no manual for this one, either. But, I’ve had experience getting things off the ground from my position as frontline personnel – inside an organization. First and foremost, I believe you’ve got to be about it. Your actual ambition has to be rooted in bettering your organization and the people inside of it. If you are chasing rank or have an otherwise self-centered drive, it will be perfectly visible. Alongside a service-driven aim, you need to be doing the work that you’re espousing. If your messaging around operational readiness is one of physical fitness, emotional readiness and mental fortitude, you need to be actively practicing these skills.

And, that doesn’t have to be a public move, either. It’s not something you need to plaster all over social media if you don’t want to. But, you need to be doing what it is you’re advocating for.

Know that change is possible.

There will be opportunities to talk about how your organization could better influence the operational readiness of it’s members. Here’s the kicker – you have to strategically approach these opportunities with a few things in mind.

Shit talking your organization doesn’t advance your mission and is net negative to all members. The future of your proposed plan depends on viewing the organization as being capable of change. That’s an important point that I think many people have a real hard time with. Sure – the evidence may be to the contrary. It may even be the case that you’ve witnessed the organization falter in some way.

If you do not approach your organization fully believing that it can make room for new ideas, you will be blind to flanks that do exist.

Sometimes, this may require you to compile some of the problems you see in a way that you haven’t before. You may even need to actively address some of your own beliefs about the personnel and policies that your organization currently employs. Either way, you have to actually believe that you can manifest your vision.

Even if your plan isn’t fully materialized, a version of it might see the light of day if you’re flexible enough to allow for it to happen.

Start talking.

At the bottom of all of our plans resides hope. But, hope is not a plan.

By the time that you’re weighing out how you might be able to make things happen, you’ll have probably found people in your department that could be allies toward actually improving the organizations posture toward mental health. If not outright, you can likely detect through conversation that these people would at least be open to talking about what can be done.

Even talking about moving forward is better than awareness alone.

These conversations might net an opportunity. You need to be acutely aware of opportunity when it sneaks it’s way into your sights.

There’s a difference, of course, between those people who wait for opportunity to knock and those that kick the door down themselves.

Get credentialed.

When you’re trying to elevate the priority of operational readiness in your organization, you may be surprised to find that there’s not many (or any!) personnel internally that are fit for bringing actual programming to the people. That’s where certification comes in.

With certification, you’ll encounter people who may see your ambition as threatening. They may say that you’re just trying to climb the ladder. They may accuse you of any number of sideways intentions. That’s what we were getting after above – your aim has to be centered in service. If it is, the peanut gallery is just hairspray – all the words wash out.

To make wellness a focus, your organization might not have any formal programs in place. To create one, a person with formal training is very regularly required. If you don’t have a post-secondary education in social work, psychology or adjacent fields, you’ll still be able to find approachable courses that will teach you how to be the leader of a mental health education program.

Try Googling things like ‘firefighter peer to peer mental health program’ or ‘police train the trainer mental health’. Call CMHA and ask if there are any instructor-level programs available. Email the Red Cross to figure out how to become a leader for the ‘Mental Health First Aid’ program. Volunteer for a crisis line. Ask leadership about how to get involved with an existing CISM team.


Most importantly of all, you have to remember; the baseline for leadership of any kind is always endurance.

This post is meant to show you what the absolute bottom of the list looks like for getting things moving. It might seem like ‘start talking, get certs’ is fluffy advice, but this comes from a place where we’re looking at what can be actually done outside of only advocacy. Clearly, awareness isn’t the answer. We have to do something and it’s completely on us to make things happen.

To do that, we have to start at the absolute bottom. If your organization doesn’t have trainers for formal programming, you might have to stage to be that person. If the organization isn’t ready to make moves, water boils from the bottom. Find people who believe that your vision – or something like it – can be made by time and effort. Those colleagues will be instrumental in promoting the value of making operational readiness a priority in your department.

Bill Dungey is a volunteer firefighter in Ontario, Canada. He is focused on fitness, mindset development and finding training opportunities to help the fire service make things better.

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