Fire Fighting in Canada

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Well-Being: The mental health crisis and COVID-19

November 30, 2020
By Elias Markou

A recent CBC article, “Psychologists worry about mental health in first full COVID-19 winter” and a sudden influx of patients coming into my practice with mental health concerns influenced me to write this very important article for firefighters and the fire service.

I want to sound the alarm bells. Mental health has been a prevailing health issue among firefighters and COVID-19 has poured gasoline on a fire that may soon be an out of control raging inferno. We must act. Mental health will be one of the defining health issues of COVID-19. Please don’t take my warning lightly. One of every three patients coming to my clinic is now dealing with sadness, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and many other mental health issues.

There are many factors influencing this quick decline from anxiety to depression and other menacing mental health diagnosis. Over the summer, things were okay. We all had the opportunity to be outside and be exposed to fresh air and healthy sunshine. We made the most of a difficult situation and we saw covid numbers at an all-time low as social distancing measures were in place. We watched Australia struggle with their COVID numbers during their winter. We now know covid is very seasonal and it will be back even more aggressively in the coming months.

As the weather becomes colder, the days dark and long, many of us are now inside almost the entire day and we have seen covid numbers jump dramatically. For anxious and depressed individuals these statistics will have a negative impact on their mental health. I like to hope firefighters are immune to this mental health crisis, sadly they are not. Many fire halls have put their firefighters on lockdown at work, they have limited outside exposure during shifts, are put in mandatory quarantine when at home and have been recommended a super tight bubble and strict monitoring. You can imagine how quickly an already vulnerable firefighter can move from anxiety to depression. Here are some action steps firefighter can take to minimize the risk of a mental health crisis. Fire departments should have a conversation and have a plan in place.

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■ Supplements for Mental Health
Here is a list of a few vitamins that should be in your vitamin program to ward off the most common mental health issue. Please ask your medical health professional if these supplements are safe with your medication and current health concerns. <bu>

  • 5-HTP or 5-hydroxytryptophan is a by-product of tryptophan, when in the body it is converted by the body to serotonin a chemical in the brain that plays a critical role in sadness, depression and sleep. Serotonin is the “happy” neurotransmitter.
  • A B-complex vitamin is one of the key vitamins needed to convert 5-HTP to serotonin.
  • Magnesium is a very important mineral that also helps 5-HTP convert to serotonin. It also has the ability to support the nervous system.
  • St John’s Wort is a herb that helps with mild depression.
  • GABA is a neurotransmitter often used to help anxiety. This is found in the form of a supplement.
  • Melatonin, can help you get better sleep and this will in turn help with mental health issues.

■ What Can we do to prevent COVID related mental health issues?
I apologize for the bleak images I painted about COVID-19 and depression — don’t let this be a fact. We can be proactive and steer clear of this mental health outcome. Here are some helpful strategies to get you through the long dark days of winter.<bu>

  • Talk, talk, talk. Express yourself, ask for help when you feel your mental health is at risk.
  • Be physically active inside and outside. Remember when you were younger you loved being outside during those long cold winter days. Re-discover winter again. Get that fresh cold air into your lung for 30 minutes each day. Skate, ski, snowboard or just walk.
  • Focus on your breathing techniques. This is a great way to calm your nervous system and help you manage the anxiety and address depression.
  • Deep restful sleep and a minimum of seven hours a night should be your ideal night. A good night’s sleep will help support a health mind.
  • Be social, laugh, tell stories and be present for your fellow firefighters.
  • Sit in an infrared sauna or conventional sauna (COVID-19 rules only). Spend some time alone in a sauna and do this every day for 20 minutes.

Avoiding mental health issues during the first COVID-19 winter should be your top priority for maintaining your well-being. During your journey also look out for your fellow firefighter’s mental health.


Dr. Elias Markou is one very busy naturopathic doctor. He is in private practice in Mississauga, Ont., and is the chief medical officer for the Halton Hills Fire Department. Dr. Markou was a firefighter for six years; he has a special interest in firefighter health, is a writer and blogger who is regularly featured on television and radio and in print. Contact him at drmarkou@mypurebalance.ca


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