Saving the saviours: How first responders and the members of the military are combating PTSD

Photo courtesy of Fryderyk Supinski

Physically, mentally and psychologically broken. These are all terms one may use to describe a mental illness.

In any given year, one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem. Post-traumatic stress disorder is no exception. PTSD is described as a mental illness developed by being involved in a traumatic event. However many forget that every experience is individualized, and may not be what you expect. First responders and members of the military are great examples of just that.

With the boom of mental health discussion on media outlets, many PTSD awareness and assistance groups, such as First Responders First, The Tema Conter Memorial Trust and Wounded Warriors Canada, hope to encourage their communities to come forward about their struggles, and spark the conversation that it is okay to ask for help.

Ron Kelusky, a former Toronto EMS who is now the President and CEO of the Public Health Services and Safety Association in Ontario helped to create a PTSD tool kit, called First Responders First. This tool kit aims to create a welcoming space for anyone struggling with this mental illness that doesn’t want to speak to an internal source.

It all started with the discussion of what Kelusky and his team could do to provide for the different jurisdictions in Ontario during a summit meeting of about 300 first responders. The idea for the tool kit was sparked by the words of a small fire chief, who spoke up about the lack of resources that are available in smaller communities and how overwhelming a simple Google search can be.

The goal for this website was to look at the situation from three simple perspectives: prevention, how someone can get help and the promotion of recovery, “We thought as an organization, let’s start looking at how we could develop a tool as a resource to help these people,” said Kelusky.

With these thoughts in mind, the first responders first website was built. It is focused on research, anti-stigma campaigns, anti-stigma awareness and somewhere where people can access information about mental health and PTSD.

What really drove this organization was the legislation of Bill 163. This bill is meant to fast track the claims of first responders who are dealing with or have been diagnosed with PTSD.

Prior to Bill 163 being introduced, first responders needed to be able to prove to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board that their PTSD was a direct result of the work that they did.

“When I ran Toronto EMS back in 2000, I instituted a process into the agreement that allowed people to go home part way through their shift if they had sustained a critical call or something that bothered them. It was never abused,” said Kelusky. “So I think the idea is that you’re trying to normalize the situation.”

However, many have their own opinions on the legislation of Bill 163, such as Vince Savoia, the Founder and Executive Director of the Tema Conter Memorial Trust.

Savoia is a former Toronto EMS who left his job in July 1992 after he was dispatched to a homicide call in 1988. When he arrived at the scene, initially he’d thought that it was his fiancé, but it turned out to be Tema Conter, who as raped and murdered.

He was completely physically, mentally and psychologically broken, ended up quitting his job and started up his own financial planning business. “I always felt that I needed to give back. I wanted to do something for Tema,” said Savoia.

In 2000, Savoia contacted the Conter family and received permission to start a charity in Tema’s name. It started out as a local charity and has since become a national organization that provides $32,500 in scholarships every year to any student involved in a public safety program.

In regards to Bill 163, Savoia felt like some other important factors weren’t being recognized. “Even though that’s a fantastic start, because it deals with posttraumatic stress disorder, what it doesn’t deal with are the other stressors that first responders face that are more prevalent than PTSD,” said Savoia.

Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue are examples of these other stressors that Bill 163 doesn’t necessarily touch on.

Vicarious trauma is caused by the effect of witnessing other people’s pain and absorbing the trauma, even though there may be no direct involvement. Compassion fatigue illustrates itself by a lack of empathy to the point where you can look at someone and see that they are completely run down.

“As you can appreciate as a first responder, you’re always giving, giving, giving of yourself,” said Savoia. “They have the type of personality that is very reluctant to accept help for themselves. It’s because of that they burn themselves out.”

Savoia hopes that Bill 163, which has since been passed on Apr. 5, will provide first responders with the ability to get into treatment faster and provide a continuous stream of income if a responder is to be taken off pay roll.

“So what this bill will prevent are those first responders from falling through the cracks and they’ll be able to have that continuous stream of income until they’re able to go back to work,” said Savoia.

Being able to get back to work is one of the most important steps of recovery. One of the best ways to recover is by having the support of family and friends.

The Tema Conter Memorial Trust has partnered with Wounded Warriors Canada to create a program called the peer and family support assistance fund. This program funds up to $1000 for counselling services for a first responder and people serving in the military.

PTSD not only affects first responders, but also members of the military. David Macdonald is the National Partnerships Director of Wounded Warriors Canada and a member of the Canadian Armed Forces. He hopes to fight the stigma surrounding PTSD.

“Within the military it’s misunderstood that you coming forward is like a symbol of you being weak,” said Macdonald. “That’s why a lot of men and women in the military don’t come forward.”

Macdonald believes that there are a lot of misconceptions about PTSD and the military, and feels that people need to realize that each situation is individualized. “When someone says well I can’t stand fireworks, don’t automatically assume its because of the explosion, it could be something entirely different,” said Macdonald.

Deployed to Afghanistan in 2009, Macdonald was shelled from near by, and heard the sound of a round leaving the tube of a mortar. This sound is exactly what he hears when fireworks go off. “That just triggers me and sends me off down the path of looking for a place to hide or a place to cover.”

Macdonald describes his PTSD as a sensory overload. He is unable to focus on one thing. “It’s like having an anxiety attack but to the next level and you just want to get away from what’s stressing you out,” said Macdonald.

“The best thing I ever did was come forward and ask for help because I was getting ready to put a gun in my mouth,” said Macdonald. “I already made one attempt that failed and I was looking for new ways to do it.”

Wounded Warriors Canada is a non-profit organization that hopes to support Canada’s injured members, families and veterans, particularly struggling with PTSD. They hope to encourage the wounded to come forward and be open about discussing their mental illnesses.

Wounded Warriors Canada provides recovery programs, such as animal therapy and the ‘Couples Overcoming PTSD Everyday’ program. This program teaches couples proper communication skills in order to talk through the implications of PTSD.

“If we start there in society and accepting it, we can work on the military and the first responders,” said Macdonald. “We have to create that environment where it’s okay and generally acceptable for people to have it and come forward and have it treated.”

To learn more about these organizations and how you can get help if you are struggling with PTSD, visit www.firstrespondersfirst.ca, www.tema.ca or www.woundedwarriors.ca for resources or more information.

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