Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Graduation 2022

Most people gush with joy and pride when a loved one completes a course of study – whether high school, university, professional training, or even nursery school. But these same proud friends and family members grimace when they talk about attending the actual graduation ceremonies: too long, too hot, can’t see, boring, and more. Me? I cannot get enough of this particular milestone ritual. The pomp and circumstance, the robes, and especially the speeches, all fascinate me.

I have been relishing this year’s offerings. Some highlights: Rollins College valedictorian Elizabeth Bonker, who is affected by non-speaking autism and communicates solely by typing, urged her fellow graduates to use their voice for good. Singer, songwriter, producer, and director Taylor Swift delivered the N.Y.U. commencement address at Yankee Stadium and spoke about things that make us cringe and not hiding our enthusiasm in life. And our very own Columbia University President, Lee Bollinger urged graduates to think critically in the face of ever increasing deliberate disinformation and propaganda that undermines knowledge and expertise, both of which are at the heart of the university enterprise and absolutely essential to solving the problems of our day. As much as they hit the mark, the standout, and a first for me, was this year’s Albemarle County Fire Rescue Graduation where my nephew, Michael, was part of an elite cohort of fourteen firefighter recruits. Chief Dan Eggleston addressed the class. Five takeaways that stand out for me from a mental health perspective:

1. Safety begins with self-care. As first responders, firefighters are called on to restore safety when community members are in crisis. The extreme stress and intense health and safety risks can take a toll and increase mental health concerns such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, burnout, and suicidal thoughts. One study of 7,000 firefighters reported that 65% of respondents have traumatic memories of difficult calls, 59% have had family or relationship problems as a result of their jobs, 27% reported substance abuse issues, and 19% reported having had thoughts of suicide at some point in the past year. Given this reality, Chief Eggleston emphasized that safety includes self-care. It is not optional. It is life saving for both the firefighters and those they serve.

2. Success depends on teamwork. And teams are built on trust. When trust is high, effective teams have the capacity to reduce psychosocial risk and optimize outcomes. This matters a lot when it comes to blazing fires and community crises. The high level of intrinsic risk and hazards for firefighters – both physical and mental – means that firefighters need to earn and honor each other’s trust so that they can do their work well. No one works alone. A series of studies demonstrate clearly that effective teams result in reduced costs of supervision, innovation, more effective decision-making, better service, and enhanced employee morale. For firefighters, this translates to safer communities and more lives saved.

3. Hold fast to your purpose. Most people think that a firefighter’s purpose is to extinguish a fire. Seems pretty obvious. But Chief Eggelston asserted it’s more than that. Firefighters serve people who are in crisis. It could be an elderly person who fell out of bed and is not able to get up or a family’s house that is filling with smoke. He told graduates that whether they are lifting someone back into bed or extinguishing a blazing fire, their purpose is the same: to move people out of crisis and into safety. It reminded me of the work I do when someone is having an acute mental health crisis. Having the requisite technical skills is necessary but not sufficient to help someone move to safety. Clarity of purpose guides which actions to take when.

4. Act with kindness. We count on firefighters to have specific technical skills. During their training, these graduates mastered carrying hundreds of pounds of hose and climbing dozens of ladder rungs to upper story fires. They learned to crawl through tunnels, cut electrical wires, and combat smoke. Chief Eggleston urged graduates to master technical skills so they become automatic. That will leave more space in their hearts and minds to tend to the person in crisis with kindness. I have written about the mental health benefits of kindness in other Five on Friday posts. Chief Eggelston advised graduates that by treating themselves, their fellow firefighters, and community members with kindness, they will optimize their teamwork, improve crisis outcomes and create a virtuous cycle as leaders within their community.

5. Asking for help is a sign of strength. Firefighters are taught to be tough and resilient. They need to be to do their job. But Chief Eggleston and others warned that strength and grit do not make anyone invincible. As first responders, firefighters engage in stressful work that can cause fatigue, burnout, and mental health issues. In fact, a 2017 study reported that more firefighters died that year due to suicide than line-of-duty deaths. While line-of-duty deaths garner front page headlines, first responder mental health issues and suicides do not. Chief Eggelston urged graduates to pay attention to their mental health and to ask for help early. He underscored that self-care includes mental health self-care; that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Michael is the first firefighter in my extended family, and I had never been to a fire academy graduation prior to yesterday. I love graduations because they remind us to remember. They help us pause and ponder what it took to reach this milestone. Graduations teach us. They connect us to core values and inspire us with hope. Michael’s graduation did that and more. Congratulations to Mike and all of this year’s graduates!

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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