Don't let mental health, addiction issues smolder

December 16, 2014

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Firefighters and paramedics encounter traumatic events in the line of duty every day. To deal with the stress and injuries from their jobs, some turn to alcohol and other drugs.

The new Rosecrance Florian Program offers the best opportunity for lasting recovery by incorporating occupational factors into the treatment process. The program is housed in a designated, eight-bed coed unit at the Rosecrance Harrison Campus, a modern 97-bed adult facility in Rockford, Illinois, that offers a full continuum of inpatient and outpatient services.

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Dan DeGryse, Director of the Rosecrance Florian Program

Daniel DeGryse, an active-duty battalion chief/EMT with 25 years’ experience with the Chicago Fire Department, was hired in June to direct the program. He developed the program with Dr. Raymond Garcia, a board-certified psychiatrist and addictionologist who is trained in treating firefighters and paramedics for co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders.

“The nature of being a firefighter or paramedic is to always be ready for anything, to expect anything that can happen,” said Garcia, medical director for Rosecrance’s adult services. “It’s being ready for the unpredictable, and the unpredictable can be fairly traumatic.”

Florian, named for the patron saint of firefighters, is the first program in the country dedicated to and specializing in serving firefighters, paramedics and other fire service members who need substance abuse treatment but who also need care for job-related post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

A 12-member committee comprised of experienced firefighters and fire personnel from across the nation is helping to advise the Florian Program. Rosecrance started treating clients in the fall.

“I have worked with Rosecrance for years and referred many people to Rosecrance for substance abuse treatment,” DeGryse said. “The staff was eager to learn more about the firefighting culture and create a unique therapeutic program dedicated to this population.

“I think this program will help our clients learn to take care of themselves, help them return to work safely, continue their recovery, be healthy again and improve their quality of life.”

Peer support from active and retired fire service personnel is a key element of the program. Men and women also can relate to one another’s experiences while staying on the same unit together. The program also has spiritual support.

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A staff member of the Rosecrance Florian program climbs a 100-foot aerial ladder as part of the training with the Rockford Fire Department in October.

To better understand how the fire service works and connect with clients during treatment, nine Rosecrance staff members trained with the Rockford Fire Department in October. They suited up in full firefighter gear and took turns doing tasks such as extinguishing a car fire and climbing a 100-foot aerial ladder.

Resiliency is an important lesson for Florian clients because many men and women will return to work and face the same stressful, traumatic experiences. Also key is accepting help and not feeling weak or ashamed by doing so.

“When you’re sworn in as a firefighter, whether you’re a volunteer or a career, and you take that oath, they hand you a cape. You don’t actually see it, but you get it. And your job is to go out and save the day, to do the things that other people can’t do. And unfortunately, you can’t always save the day,” said Patrick Kenny, fire chief in Western Springs, Illinois, and a member of the Florian advisory panel.

The Florian Program also will work to train fire personnel across the country to recognize and act on the signs and symptoms of substance abuse and mental health issues. Many fire departments, both full-time and volunteer, don’t have the resources for this type of training.

“I believe it’s imperative to address these issues,” DeGryse said. “There has to be a movement. We need more people on board to tackle behavioral health challenges for the fire service so we don’t pass along things like addiction to the next generation.”

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