State Leadership Conference

How are journalists and firefighters alike?

Both arrive first to the disaster scene. Both must perform at their peak. And both deal with considerable stress, said APA Executive Director for Professional Practice Russ Newman, PhD, JD, at APA's 2007 State Leadership Conference (SLC).

"Neither wants to acknowledge the vulnerability they have to deal with when putting themselves in life-threatening places," said Newman. But the trauma they experience puts them at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and PTSD-like symptoms, he said.

Psychologists can help firefighters and journalists build PTSD-fighting resilience and stress-management skills, Newman noted. But, he emphasized, psychologists must develop relationships with first-responders so that trust is established before disasters strike.

In that spirit, APA's Practice Directorate is forging relationships with journalists and firefighters. Directorate representatives are delivering speeches and workshops to these groups as part of the directorate's public-education campaign, noted Luana Bossolo, assistant executive director for public relations. SLC speakers encouraged psychologists to do the same locally, and to tailor support to each profession's culture.

"Talking about mind-body with firefighters is not the same as talking about it with others," explained Newman. "Of most interest to firefighters is their ability to perform most optimally in the actual [emergency] event itself."

Opening up the firehouse

Newman has been raising firefighters' awareness of mind-body health through a partnership formed two years ago with Pat Morrison, director of occupational health and safety at the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).

Previously, behavioral health had "taken a back seat" at IAFF, said Morrison at the SLC session. That's no longer the case, but many firefighters still deny their own vulnerability, Morrison said, noting three firefighter suicides in recent months. A code of silence continues to prevail.

"For firefighters, it's a well-known attitude that what happens in the firehouse stays in the firehouse," said Newman. "They don't talk about it."

That silence can harm firefighters and their families, said Morrison. "By the time retirement comes, you start to see the effects of keeping everything bottled up: the breakup of the family; the breakup of the individual; the disengagement; the substance abuse; the depression."

Local relationships between firefighters and behavioral health professionals could help break the silence and strengthen firefighters' spirit, said Morrison.

"We need to engage at the local level," he said. "What is the good science? What are the good therapies being used? How can we put those out to firefighters?"

Discussing denial

Another group of first-responders--journalists--face the added challenge of being new to the role, said SLC speakers. Driven by 24-hour news delivery through video and the Web, today's journalists sometimes arrive on the scene before emergency personnel.

"No longer do journalists simply interview eyewitnesses and then repeat and tell the story," said Newman. "Rather, the journalists have become the eyewitnesses, whether it's being embedded with troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, or being on the Gulf Coast during hurricanes."

As first-responders, journalists take on increased mental health risks, said SLC speaker Peter Perl, the Washington Post's assistant managing editor for training and career development. He noted that before reporters head to Baghdad, he talks to them about risks, self-care care strategies and PTSD warning signs. And he always follows up with reporters when they return. So far, only two have reported PTSD symptoms, a potential indicator that the approach helps, he said.

However, "I try not to practice without a license," said Perl. "I'm just trying to normalize conversations that previously did not occur."

Perl knows first-hand how traumatic news reporting can be. After 9/11, he worked long hours writing and editing stories about victims and their families.

"I was exhausted," he recalls. "You had people yell at you--people denying that their missing person is a victim, or people who think you're the scum of the earth because you're calling up to wallow in their sorrow."

To help his 9/11 reporters navigate the difficulty, Perl arranged a group session with an employee-assistance program psychologist. Only Perl showed up.

"We had a very interesting discussion about denial," he joked.

In all seriousness, though, Perl said he worries that journalists, like firefighters, also quash their feelings about the ugliness they see. "They like to joke about it and show they can deal with it," he said.

Toughness is part of the culture, agreed fellow speaker David Wood, national security correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. But he and Perl voiced hope that more dialogue with behavioral health professionals might help the culture evolve.