PTSD among 1st responders focus of Calgary forum

Dozens of Calgary first responders gathered Tuesday night for a forum on post-traumatic stress disorder.

Post-traumatic stress disorder affects more police officers, paramedics than people realize, organizer says

Vince Savoia, founder of the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, talks to first responders about post-traumatic stress disorder at a forum in Calgary on Tuesday. (CBC)

Dozens of Calgary first responders gathered Tuesday night for a forum on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The event was put on by the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, a national foundation devoted to helping emergency service workers with mental health issues.

The issue of PTSD in the military in recent years has drawn national headlines, but former paramedic and organization founder Vince Savoia says first responders are also at risk.

Savoia was called to a Toronto scene in 1988 where 25-year-old Tema Conter was brutally murdered by a convicted serial killer out of prison on an unescorted pass.

The traumatic experience turned his life upside down.

"I struggled with PTSD for about 12 years before I received a proper diagnosis,” he said. "I felt this tremendous amount of guilt for not being able to save Tema's life."

Years later, Savoia created the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, which has grown into a national organization offering peer support, training and referral services to first responders grappling with the aftermath of traumatic incidents.

'Fear of coming forward'

As many as 25 per cent of paramedics and about 17 to 18 per cent of police officers suffer from PTSD, according to Savoia.

But they often don’t know where to turn, he said.

"Right across the country we're hearing a lot of the similar issues about the fear of coming forward, and the fear of losing their job,” Savoia said.

Former Toronto police officer Paul Januszewski, the trust’s manager of peer support and family assistance, said one challenge is overcoming an ingrained attitude of stoicism among first responders.

"We help others, we don't need help. That's the mentality a lot of first responders have,” he said.

"We can do presentations like this, we do research, we can be just an ear, we can just listen, we have a 1-800 number you can call us from anywhere across Canada."

The trust’s presentation in Calgary is one of 48 planned across Canada over the summer, said Januszewski.