New outpatient program puts trauma help for first responders front and centre

A new outpatient program in Mississauga will bring help to first responders who experience post-traumatic stress disorder.

'I wasn’t taught about what PTSD is. We didn’t talk about it,' says paramedic who tried to commit suicide

Natalie Harris was among the first responders called to a Barrie hotel in May 2012 where two women were found brutally murdered. It was after that she says she realized she had post-traumatic stress disorder. (Homewood Health Centre)

Paramedic Natalie Harris was among the first responders called to a Barrie hotel in May 2012 where two women were found brutally killed. The murderer, she says, was her patient. 

For years, Harris had been using alcohol along with prescription and over the counter drugs to self medicate. But after that night, she says things got worse.

"Things really sort of came crashing down in 2012," she told CBC News. After the incident, she says she ended up in the hospital for an overdose and even tried to commit suicide.

She didn't know it then but says she later learned she'd been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Increase in first responders seeking help

Two years after visiting the murder scene, Harris says she got help at the Homewood Health Centre for mental illness and addiction in Guelph. 

That was before the Ontario government passed legislation that recognized PTSD as a work-related illness for police, firefighters and paramedics. Since it passed this past April, specialists at Homewood Health Centre say they've seen an increase in first responders seeking help.

A new outpatient program by Homewood Health Centre in Mississauga will bring help to first responders who experience post-traumatic stress disorder. Pictured here is the organization's Montreal clinic. (Homewood Health Centre)

They say it's partially due to the fact that first responders don't have to prove that their PTSD is related to their job. In the past, injured first responders needed to prove their diagnoses stemmed from a workplace injury in order to access benefits from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

The higher demand for treatment has prompted the organization to open a new outpatient program in Mississauga that primarily caters to first responders.

The program offers access to specialists from psychologists to occupational therapists, is group based and treatment is multiple hours per day.

'I wasn't taught about what PTSD is'

Psychologist Ann Malain, the company's executive vice-president, says the approach is a good option for those who don't want or need to stay in a facility for long periods of time.

"PSTD really disrupts a person's sense of self and ability to trust anything around them," says Malain.

"People kind of say in general society, 'Oh, I'm depressed' and people kind of understand what that means. There's not the kind of language in general society [to say] I'm experiencing PTSD."

But even in the healthcare field itself, Harris says, that literacy is lacking. 

"I do know that a lot of my colleagues, we use alcohol to help us cope just basically with the stresses of our career," said Harris. "I wasn't taught about what PTSD is. We didn't talk about it."

Malain says waitlists for PTSD programs at the health centre can be as long as four to five months. Through the new outpatient program, though, she says first responders can be assessed and start receiving treatment the next day. 

The new program isn't covered by OHIP. The clinic set to open in November.