New peer network helps Alberta's first responders face their demons

During a decade on the job, Leduc paramedic Sarah Baile is afraid of her radio.

'We need to do more for the people who go running into the fires,' director says

Tamara Osmak, left, and Sarah Baile were part of the inspiration for a new work of art by fellow paramedic Daniel Sundahl.

After a decade on the job, Leduc paramedic Sarah Baile talks about being afraid of her radio.

"You never know what it's going to bring through from the other side," she said. "It could be a stubbed toe. It could be a pediatric drowning. It could be anything in between."

Her story was part of the inspiration for the latest work of art by fellow paramedic Daniel Sundahl, a haunting depiction of the stigma attached to post-traumatic stress disorder and the mental-health challenges faced by first responders.

"I thought it was a very, very powerful image," said colleague, Tamara Osmak, who has been a paramedic for eight years. "It is almost like a demon ... telling you to be quiet, don't speak."

'Afraid to talk about it'

On Saturday night, first responders from across North America gathered at Enoch Cree Nation for the opening of Sundahl's peer recovery and resiliency symposium.

Though talk about PTSD has become more acceptable in fire halls and EMS stations, Baile said the stigma remains.

"I think you can even tell from our body language," she said during an interview with CBC. "We're both rigid, we're fidgeting, we're looking at each other constantly. We're even here, just alone with you, afraid to talk about it. And we're two of the ones that are more open about it."

For the symposium, the banquet room at the River Cree Resort was filled with work by several Alberta artists. A mix of landscapes, butterflies and the sometimes haunting, thought-provoking works Sundahl has become known for. Around the room, tables were set up with resources available to help deal with trauma.

Jeff Sych is clinical director of the Alberta Critical Incident Provincial Network.

In 2016, the Fort McMurray wildfire highlighted the stresses faced by first responders and the critical need for help. Hundreds of firefighters from across the province rushed to the northern city to help battle the fire known as "the Beast."

Many volunteer firefighters who helped out went back to communities where there was nothing in place to support them, said Jeff Sych, clinical director of the Alberta Critical Incident Provincial Network (ACIPN).

"We recognized that people were calling out for help," he said. "We realized that people were missing their full-time job, that they were impacting families and there was nothing in place. We need to do more for the people who go running into the fires when the general population is running away from them."

The ACPIN was created to fill that need.

The volunteer, peer-driven program is just now getting off the ground. Over the past year, the network has trained 300 people. But there are more than 400 fire departments and 19,000 firefighters in the province.

"If you live in a large urban area, you probably have more access to care," said Sych. "And so what we're trying to do is to fill the gaps in the smaller areas, the more remote areas."

The program was started with a small grant from the Alberta government. Sych said they plan to ask for more provincial money.

Matt Petrie retired from the RCMP in 2010 after more than two decades on the job.

Matt Petrie was an RCMP officer for 22 years. In July 2005, co-worker Const. Jose Agostinho was killed when his cruiser was struck by a delivery truck. Just months earlier, four Alberta Mounties had been killed by gunman James Roszko in Mayerthorpe.

Petrie said that's when it all came to a head for him. "At time that, my life kind of just changed," he said. "It kind of made me reflect on other things in the force that I dealt with but never really dealt with. You know, it was just there and you just suck it up and don't show any emotion. And that's the way the RCMP was, policing was."

He left the RCMP in 2010. Petrie said he spent a year seeing a psychologist and started the serious work of getting healthy. Once he was ready, he went back to school and obtained his masters degree in psychology.

"I think it is really important to understand that first responders, we're the helpers, and sometimes the helpers need help. You can't be doing your job effectively if your not healthy, mentally, physically, emotionally.

"Without a doubt, peer support needs to be there," he said. "It needs to be in place in every single first-responder population.

Students Kristina Chin, left, and Brooke Sampert received scholarships to attend the symposium at River Cree Resort.

That message is being heard by students just starting their careers as paramedics. Brooke Sampert and Kristina Chin received scholarships to attend the symposium. They wrote an essay about why it was important for them to be there.

"They always hear people say like we're the one's going in when everyone else is running away and I think that's a big thing," said Sampert. "Taking care of ourselves while we take care of others is a big, big part of it that kind of gets skipped."

A study out of the University of Regina found that close to 45 per cent of first responders suffer one or more mental health conditions.

"In one year, there's about 14 per cent that are either thinking about, planning or attempting suicide, so we know there's a huge need," said Sych. "We know that there's a huge gap, but we also know the best providers of supporting first responders are first responders."