First responders living with PTSD say money and awareness is helping

Some first responders living with post traumatic stress disorder say more money and awareness for mental health is making a positive difference.

Veteran says advocacy is 'night and day' compared to 15 years ago

A group of first responders, veterans and politicians does pushups on the front lawn of Parliament Hill on July 22 to mark a year of the 22 Pushups Challenge, which raises money and awareness for mental health. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Some first responders living with post traumatic stress disorder say more money and awareness for mental health is making a positive difference.

Those emergency responders were among the crowd who gathered on Parliament Hill Saturday afternoon to mark the one-year anniversary of the 22 Pushup Challenge, which asks people to do 22 pushups a day for 22 days to raise money and awareness for veterans and first responders dealing with mental health issues.

"Chains of command in all first responder services are changing: that it's ok to talk, that there are treatments available, that what we want you to do is get the help you need so you can then get back into service and do those things you love to do," said Phil Ralph with Wounded Warriors Canada, which runs the pushup campaign.

Phil Ralph of Wounded Warriors Canada speaks at an event marking a year of fundraising for post-traumatic stress disorder treatment on Parliament Hill July 22. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Lifting the stigma

Matthew Tofflemire, a military veteran and Ottawa firefighter who's been off work getting treatment since December 2015, said he's seen a huge change in the attitude towards mental health in his work.

"I've been doing this since I was 16 and I've been through some very difficult situations," he said. "I went to go talk to someone and I don't think they knew what to do. It was really nobody's fault, they just didn't know what to do."

Everyone he talked to – from coworkers to family members – had no idea how to respond, Tofflemire said. Now things are different.

"In the last 15 years, in my experience, it's night and day," he continued. "It's a hard thing to talk about because it's been 'hush hush' in our society for such a long time but the stigma's lifting and everyday just gets easier and easier."

Money raised for Wounded Warriors through campaigns like the pushup challenge helped pay the $3,500 U.S. for Tofflemire's service dog, Gordon, through a Nova Scotian charity called Paws Fur Thought.

Matthew Tofflemire said his experiences as a search-and-rescue worker, a member of the military and firefighter kept compounding his PTSD, until a Dec. 2015 fire that seriously injured two young kids 'overfilled my coffee cup' and he started down the road toward getting better. (CBC)

Paramedics 'not used to being helped'

A bad car crash on Julie Jolicoeur's first day as an Ottawa paramedic stuck with her for her entire career, she said, calling it the beginning of her early "medical retirement."

"I think my brain just wasn't prepared to cope with it. I didn't have any tools in my toolbox to prepare me for what I saw that day," she said Saturday.

"I continued to work, just sort of shoved it down. I started crying on calls, started having panic attacks in the back of the ambulance, would show up at the hospital and know nothing about my patient and would have provided zero care for them. I knew I had gotten myself into a bad place."

Julie Jolicoeur retired as a paramedic in Ottawa about 11 years ago. She's had her service dog since October and says he's 'changed everything.' (CBC)

The flashbacks of that accident are less powerful for her now, Jolicoeur says, crediting her service dog for his help.

She said there's been progress as far as getting first responders to open up about mental health issues, but there's still work to be done.

We're very used to helping people and not used to being helped.- Julie Jolicoeur

"I hope by things being more public people are more willing to have those conversations with people, but honestly, it's a tough environment," she said.

"We're very used to helping people and not used to being helped. We're very stubborn people, very 'type A' [personality] and we're not great at asking for help. There's still a learning curve."

Wounded Warriors has set a $150,000 fundraising goal for its 22 Pushup challenge by Nov. 11, saying it's raised nearly $100,000 over the last year.

With files from Claudine Richard