Nova Scotia

'We're not broken beyond repair': N.S. firefighter starts PTSD support group

A Nova Scotia navy veteran and firefighter has started a virtual support group for first responders with PTSD. He says accessing mental health care is difficult, and the goal of the group is to help people navigate the process.

New virtual peer support group to help first responders access the care they need

Derrick Lang has been a firefighter for more than 15 years. (Submitted by Derrick Lang)

When Derrick Lang began suffering from PTSD after his time serving in the Royal Canadian Navy, he didn't know where to turn. 

"When I got injured, I was lost," Lang said. "Nobody seemed to have any answer to where I should go, what I should do, how do I navigate?" 

Lang, now a firefighter with the Hubbards and District Fire Department west of Halifax, wants to use his past struggles to help others. So he started a support group for first responders in Nova Scotia.

The group meets every Friday evening on Zoom, and is open to veterans, paramedics, firefighters, police officers, correctional officers or any other first responder who may need support for PTSD.

"We need to have each other's backs," Lang said. "It's not just on the ground, it's after."

Lang said though people can share their feelings, it's not meant to be therapy. One of its main goals is to teach people how to access the care they need.

PTSD is "an injury, just like a broken ankle," he said. "You heal from an injury, if you get the right support. And we're just trying to provide that and line people up with connections.

"We're not broken beyond repair. And people need to feel that at their core."

Searching for care can retraumatize

Lang believes his own experiences make him a great person for others to turn to when they need help.

In the late 1980s, he was injured on HMCS Margaree. His PTSD began a few days after the accident, and the symptoms escalated for years. In 2012, after being reinjured, Lang finally received a diagnosis of complex PTSD.

But the journey didn't end there. 

Before he got the care he needed, Lang said his relationships with his children, friends and colleagues suffered. His career as a contractor ended because he couldn't leave his home without experiencing flashbacks.

It was "really difficult to find somebody that was qualified enough to help me in a way that I needed to be helped, because of the intensive trauma that I'd been through," he said.

He said even trying to apply for insurance coverage for care could be retraumatizing, because his case often didn't fit their specific mould.

Then Lang said Veterans Affairs "stepped up" and helped him access the psychological treatment he needed. He took part in a program with the Veterans Transition Network, a charity that provides mental health services specifically for veterans across Canada.

"It absolutely changed my life," Lang said. "I'm resilient, right, and most firefighters and first responders are … [Now] I know how to navigate, and I just want to pass it on to other people."

This past March, he approached his firefighting colleague Rachael Dent-Flynn about starting a support group. She said she was on board right away. 

Rachael Dent-Flynn says many first responders don't feel comfortable addressing issues like PTSD at work, so the group provides a much-needed outlet. (Submitted by Rachael Dent-Flynn)

"It's no secret that there's a break in our mental health system, and there's lots of people who have felt it first-hand and had nowhere to go and no supports," Dent-Flynn said. "So if we can be that catch-all and that help in those moments, that's the hope."

She said when someone is in a dark place with their illness, the last thing they may think about is looking for new treatments and programs.

Still a stigma

Dent-Flynn said the response to the first two meetings has been hugely positive. She said many first responders don't feel comfortable addressing issues like PTSD at work, so the group provides a much-needed outlet.

"Even though it's 2022, there is still a very huge stigma associated with it because of the lack of education and awareness," she said.

Both Dent-Flynn and Lang hope the Nova Scotia support group will be a starting point for similar groups that can work with first responders in each province. Lang said anyone who wants to learn more or join the group can contact him via Facebook. 

"We don't know what it's going to morph into," Lang said. "But I want it done in a way that people feel like, 'Hey, somebody gets me. I feel safe in this.'"

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicola Seguin is a TV, radio, and online journalist with CBC Nova Scotia, based in Kjipuktuk (Halifax). If you have a story idea, email her at nicola.seguin@cbc.ca or find her on twitter @nicseg95.

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