Canada faces 'national tragedy' among paramedics with PTSD

First responders are often reluctant to come forward because of stigma, or fear they’ll be viewed by colleagues as weak. The expectation, both internally and from society at large, is that they should be strong enough to handle any situation.

Under increasing pressure, those who act as society's 'fixers' often need help fixing themselves

Canada faces “a national tragedy” if it doesn’t take steps to help first responders — including police, firefighters and paramedics — who suffer from job-related post-traumatic stress, says a PTSD advocacy group.

Vince Savoia, executive director of Tema Conter Memorial Trust, said he was grateful when he saw a story on CBC Edmonton’s website this week about a local paramedic who almost took his own life before he sought treatment for PTSD.

“For years, we’ve been asking first responders to share their stories,” said Savoia, who founded the trust, which has grown into a national centre for research, education and training for workers in public safety organizations.

“But what we do find is that many of them are reluctant to do so, for a variety of reasons.”

One problem may be that paramedics, police, firefighters and correctional officers tend to have take-charge, type A personalities, Savoia said.

“I refer to them as the fixers. They’re there to fix a problem. But sometimes they are unable to fix that problem and they run into trouble psychologically. Sometimes they have a difficult time wrapping their mind around the outcome of an incident.”

More and more, Savoia said, those “fixers” who help so many people each day, need help just fixing themselves.

“There is not enough support for our first responders when it comes to psychological care,” he said. “I would describe it as a national tragedy.”

Paramedics expected to be strong

First responders are often reluctant to come forward because of stigma, or because they fear they’ll be viewed by colleagues as weak, Savoia said. Often, the expectation, both internally and from society at large, is that they should be strong enough to handle any situation.

“For years, we’ve been asking first responders to share their stories,” said Savoia, who founded the Tema Conter Memorial Trust. (Tema Conter Memorial Trust)
​PTSD can be triggered by a single traumatic event, he said. But most often it results from an accumulation for trauma that builds up over time.

Paramedic Charles Neher spoke to CBC News this week about his five-year struggle with PTSD. He said he woke up one morning last August and decided to kill himself on the job.

At the time, he said, he was thinking: “I am going to drive my ambulance the wrong way down the High Level Bridge and go over the side.”

Instead, he went to work that day and told his boss he had a problem and needed help.

Savoia wishes more first responders would talk about PTSD that openly.

About 400 paramedics and EMTs work in the Edmonton metro area. They say they handle more calls with less support on the job since the service switched from the umbrella of the municipal government to the province.

Four first responders have committed suicide in Canada since the start of the year. Savoia’s group began tracking suicides among first responders last April, and reported 27 in the last nine months of 2014.

The most recent suicide was Edmonton paramedic Greg Turner, who killed himself last week during a shift at work.

AHS offering crisis support

Over the last two weeks, Alberta Health Services has provided “around-the-clock peer support, crisis support, chaplain services and grief counselling” to help staff cope with Turner’s suicide, said AHS spokesman Kerry Williamson.

Paramedic Charles Neher struggled with PTSD for five years. (CBC)
“Work is underway to ensure we have the right supports for staff going forward,” Williamson said in an email response to CBC’s questions.

He said four front-line paramedics will review current supports offered to staff and make recommendations about changes that might be needed. Alberta’s chief paramedic has set up a provincial mental health advisory committee to develop new policies, he said. That committee will incorporate recommendations made by front-line staff.

The province passed legislation in 2012 intended to make it easier for paramedics who suffer from PTSD to file Workers’ Compensation Board claims. The number of claims has risen sharply since then.

In 2009, only one such claim was filed. There were no claims filed during the next two years. But in 2012, there were four claims, and in the following two years a total of 31 claims were filed, according to statistics supplied by the Health Sciences of Alberta Association, the union that represents paramedics,.

Savoia said he hopes more first responders will come forward and talk about the stresses they face on the job. And he had some advice for any of them feeling hopeless or overwhelmed.

“Do not be afraid to pick up the phone and call a psychologist and go in to see a psychologist and talk about how feel and how the job is making you feel. Sometimes the life we are saving is our own.”


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