Revisiting memories of her first call to a violent motor vehicle collision, Big Country Victims Services’ Judy Nelson remembers the stress was unlike anything she had experienced before.
She attended a call with a fairly new officer where a quad carrying two people had collided head on with a truck. It was one of her first ‘really bad’ calls — and on top of that, one of the individuals on the quad was engaged to the driver of the truck and the victims suffered serious injuries.
“It was the screaming and the moaning. I had never heard anything like that in my whole life and it stayed with me for a long time,” Nelson says. “You think you are fine the day it happens but it’s the days after.”
BCVS provides support to victims of traumatic events like this one but it was something about the rookie officer that she also noticed — the mental strain which traumatic events can put people in.
“I recognized it in him and he recognized it in me. After a few days I realized that we needed to talk to someone about this.”
What she saw was the initial affects of PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a mental illness which can arise in individuals who are put into high stress, traumatic situations. It involves reliving a psychologically traumatic situation long after any danger involved has passed.
In Canada, PTSD affects at least 20 per cent of first responders (fire, EMS, police). That number is at least two to three times higher than those in the general public. First responders are regularly called to witness and assist in traumatic events and are exposed to high stress situations often.
Studies have shown emergency medical technicians face even higher rates of PTSD than police and fire due to the sheer number of calls they respond to and the higher rate of human suffering they witness.
“EMS have to see the most gruesome scenes, things that most people won’t see in their lifetime,” says Gord Stevenson, public educator with Alberta Health Services.
“The effects are there, I’ve witnessed it myself,” says Kevin Charles, Drumheller RCMP Staff Sergeant. “PTSD is kind of unique because some people think it’s one tragic event which can trigger it, which is true, but a series of small events over the years can trigger PTSD in people as well.”
Charles says indicators of the mental illness include mood changes, changes in their work, difficulty sleeping and eating, differences in their exercise patterns, and substance and alcohol abuse. These symptoms affect not only the individual’s job performance and mental health, but also affects their relationships with family and friends.
“It’s how folks are able to process those situations — we all process them differently,” says Rockyford Fire Department’s Darcy Burke. Last fall his department, run mostly by volunteers, attended four serious motor vehicle fatalities in a four week period and he recalls the toll he saw on his firemen and himself. He says it was beyond anything he had seen in his 20 year career.
“You see the effects of those traumatic situations and in our department we take it very seriously, we work as a team. That doesn’t mean just on scene but after the call. Those critical ones where we have fatalities involved requires a different level of conversation.”
“Our people can do the finest job protecting the public but it’s what happens after the call, what plays out in their minds,” says Burke.
Departments will regularly host ‘critical incident stress’ debriefings after serious events where they will meet to talk about things as a group. Nelson, whose organization provides services and training like this, says these debriefings help individuals see how it has affected others and not just themselves. If further intervention is needed a psychologist will meet with individuals to work on the problem.
Both Burke and Charles say organizations are making progress towards providing sufficient training and education on PTSD ‘but they’re not there yet.’
While society is familiar with the affects of PTSD on military personnel, the issues facing first responders in our own communities is not as well understood. Individuals with fire and police both confirmed there is a stigma around mental illness and the work of emergency personnel both in society and on the force.
“There is a stigma, there is no doubt about that. We have seen in the news first responders who take their own life,” says Burke. He said while society as a whole has become increasingly more sensitive to mental illness in recent years, the affects are not as well known to affect first responders.
There are many reasons for first responders to keep issues to themselves, but closing up usually manifests in negative ways.
“I think people think we have to be tough and strong all the time and if you are suffering from a mental health issue then you’re not strong, perhaps you’re viewed as a weak person, but that’s certainly not the case,” said Charles.
“Under the uniform we are people too so we have to get past the stigma of not showing emotions or reaching out to get help. We are the ones who people go to for help, but sometimes officers are the ones who need help.”