Our Culture – a Defense and Critique

You’ve likely felt it. I have too. Certainly, I am guilty in many ways for my part in the assault on our culture. We meant well, us mental health advocates and acceptors. I meant well when I, too, lobbied my aim at the culture that I once stood within. After much debate and talk and conference and article, this message remains the same.

The culture needs to change before mental wellness is an accepted conversation.

Now, mental health conversations will never reach the same excited, anticipatory reception that the newest nozzle or aggressive tactic will. That is a lofty and noble goal. One worth shooting for, but as someone holding the launcher, it’s a valuable stance to understand that this will, almost without exception, never be attained.

Somewhere in that middle, grey ground that none of us want to stand, is the truth. Our culture, while not perfect, does a lot to protect and embolden our mentalities. It has done much to strengthen us and enculture us to the role of the firefighter. With all its imperfections, it has a large portion of the work already done for us. While I still remain solidly on the “we have much work to do”, I no longer see smashing the culture as a necessary way forward.

Keep the dark humor and resurrect the brother and sisterhood. Bring back the family events, and become a unit again. Involve our families together to strengthen the outer circle, but to give them an outlet too. The culture is invigorating, so try hard not to marry your station especially if you married your spouse first. Pride, ritual, function, and systems are all part and parcel of an important legacy that we have the privilege to be welcomed into and grow with and give back to.

There is one essential tool that takes much of the psychological brunt. I too saw this as easy, low hanging fruit – that is in spite of using it as a firefighter. The idea that we “compartmentalize” during calls and that this is wholly bad. As the working firefighter understands the demolishing of this tool would mean the utter end to effective firefighting strategies. Indeed, think of every single tough call you had encountered – and then imagine if the emotions you felt afterward, in their overwhelming and explosive glory, you instead felt in that moment.

Following that call, you need to decompartmentalize. Emotions that you felt if you felt them (indeed, if you even know that you had any) need to be processed. Liken it to an emotional decon. If you’re sad – feel sad. Make meaning from that and put in proper place. Compressing emotion (which is the result of not de-compartmentalizing) leads to issues further down the road. Like our cancers, they may not hit us today, this week, or this year. It, however, may hit us years from now.

Then, the struggling firefighter is left to wade through years of potential calls in a confused and fear-based response. And, in their attempt to find the “cause” they slowly learn that there wasn’t one single exposure that led here. The use of compartmentalization without decon can lead to multiple mental health issues – not just PTSD.

Where this can be dangerous is the fact that we learn too soon that this compartmentalization is a super effective

tool. It works! Very well, in fact. Denying this is denying that water puts out fires. But, like an opiate, we find that it’s effective at removing not just one thing…

We can adopt those things that work well for us and generalize them to the rest of our lives. Compartmentalization is a great one. Because, when under the pressure and stress (not the pathological kind) of a hectic and chaotic call, compartmentalizing our emotional experiences and running the automatic programs we trained for is an effective strategy to offering best patient care. I’d even argue, mandatory. But, then, perhaps just once the first time, we recognize that if we approach our spouses and partners with the same cold, disconnected strategies it too works! We’re able to navigate that seemingly disconnected from the upset, frustration, and shame or any and all other emotional experiences. Suddenly, it becomes a much more preferable approach than the emotionally invested and hard approach we took prior. And, “neurons that fire together, wire together”, the beauty of simple association, we retrain our brains to react to high emotional situations with compartmentalization.

Marriages fall apart, friendships change, and work becomes more important and satisfying personally – because there we can expect to not have to deal with any of that emotion “shit”. But here’s the not-so-secret-secret, this will only take you so far. Sure, its effective in the interim, in the immediate, but playing the long game with this approach is emotional devastation. For you, and for the ones you love. And, should be proof enough to pique the interest that we ought to at least entertain the idea of learning to emotional decontaminate.

For those looking to make a change in our viewpoint to mental health, this is a lesson worth learning from me. Someone who battled tooth and nail – but, someone who recognized that we’d use the blanket term of culture as a replacement for that what we couldn’t put our finger on. If I could tally and trade each time I heard that “culture” was to blame, I’d certainly have a healthy investment. Call out those who call on the change of culture to identify exactly what that cultural piece is. Because they likely have vague answers.