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The unspoken sacrifices of our local first responders

Men and women who serve their communities as first responders are exposed to traumatic events on a regular basis. - Phil McLachlan
Men and women who serve their communities as first responders are exposed to traumatic events on a regular basis.
— image credit: Phil McLachlan

Men and women who serve their communities as first responders are exposed to traumatic events on a regular basis.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a term usually associated with members of the military, who have served overseas and been involved in combat. However, PTSD affects many different groups of people in many different industries.

Secondary trauma, bearing witness to crime and unfixable suffering, affects a wide variety of people, including those who serve as first responders. In addition, crime and war reporters, lawyers, judges, jurors, nurses, 911 call staff and victim service workers are also affected by this stress disorder.

911 dispatchers hear many emergency calls, which induce trauma upon them. So although they are not there, seeing the scene of the crime, they are still experiencing trauma through vocal distress. This is known as Vicarious Trauma.

“The claws run deep from traumatic stress,” said Registered Psychologist and retired RCMP Staff Sergeant, Dr. Jeffrey Morley.

PTSD affects 7-19 per cent of the RCMP workforce. For firefighters, 16-20 per cent of individuals, and with paramedics and people working in corrections, 20-33 per cent.

Morley finds that volunteer firefighters sometimes experience PTSD more severely, as they lack the social support that comes with a full-time workplace environment.

Morley has spent over 10,000 hours working directly with police officers, soldiers, veterans, firefighters, paramedics and other first responders. He is a board certified expert in traumatic stress.

“We know even from the research, that first responders are at an increased risk for mental health concerns such as PTSD,” said Morley. “But not only PTSD; depression, addiction, insomnia, relationship issues, anxiety disorders, and all risks that go hand-in-hand with PTSD but they all have their own challenges.”

Anyone who experiences a single traumatic event can be affected by a stress disorder. This could come in the form of a bad accident, or a close call with death. The main underlying issue with first responders comes due to the dozens, if not hundreds of traumatic events they’re exposed to over the course of their career.

“All police officers who do their job, day in and day out, have some form or some level of PTSD,” said Elk Valley RCMP Sgt. Will Thien. “Have you had anyone die while you’re holding them? I have, twice.”

Thien has served in the force for 20 years. He spent 16 years of this time in the lower mainland, working in general duties, federal duties as well as major crime. He believes PTSD is prevalent in the force.

“Some of us can put the uniform on, and tell ourselves subconsciously or consciously, that I’m a different person,” said Thien. “But at the end of the day, when we take the uniform off, I’m just a regular Joe.”

“A lot of people can do that, some people can’t,” he added. “Some people bottle up on the inside.”

Dr. Morley often finds that when first responders come to him, it may be about a specific traumatic call, but more than likely it’s in relation to a cumulative build-up of calls over the course of their career.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a term that Morley believes should be used with caution, as he doesn’t like to label people affected by trauma as having a disorder. He is more in favour of the term used by the military: Operational Stress Injury. Trauma affects the mind physiologically, and effects the chemistry of the body which leads to higher levels of adrenaline, cortisol and dopamine. This is why Morley believes the word ‘injury’ is not only more appropriate, but a more accurate term than ‘disorder’.

Asked if enough is being done about PTSD in the workforce, Morley believes that although some organizations have programs in place, some still have a long way to go.

“I think where most organizations need to grow, is on being proactive to screen and catch symptoms early on, and even offer training and resources for stress-inoculation or resilience building before first responders become overwhelmed with PTSD or depression or the like,” said Morley.

“It’s important that as a community, we have these conversations,” said Morley. “To appropriate that many people are affected by these things, and deserve our community care and attention given that they’re doing work which puts them in harms way.”

Thien recounted an infant-death, with just two years service at that time. With the baby premature by a few months, it was prone to discomfort which resulted in crying. The father or mother brought it into bed with them, and it stopped crying. Waking up the next day, they found the baby between them, deceased. Thien now had to perform a death confirmation, also known as a next of kin notification.

“As a police officer, I still have the duty to officially tell them their baby has passed away. I remember the wailing. I call it a wailing, not a crying. I can still hear it,” said Thien.

“Normal people don’t want to deal with that,” he added. “But that’s our job. We have to deal with it. So, does PTSD exist? Is it real? Yes it is.”

A day-to-day job for a police officer sometimes involves things that the average person wouldn’t want to see.

“People go through life, and may or may not discover people dying,” said Thien. “Discovering a dead body, human beings are not meant to do that. So most people who discover dead bodies, they’re shaken up. Now imagine, this is what we do on a regular basis.”

“I remember them (traumatic events) very vividly. I remember the smell, I remember the atmosphere, what I was thinking about at the time.”

As a supervisor, Thien recognizes that not everyone will come out and admit they’re experiencing a stress injury. In regards to this, part of his job is to be extra vigilant in monitoring these individuals.

“You watch it on TV; there’s detectives, and they get into gunfights every day. And then they walk home all fine. Well it doesn’t happen that way in real life, it’s not fine,” said Thien.

For RCMP officers, there are national programs put in place by the government of Canada to deal with stress disorders. Cognitive behavior therapy, as Dr. Morley practices, is one of the evidence-based ways to treat PTSD, although Morley believes there are many different ways to treat it and these are often individual-specific.

“There is no one single approach or cure for PTSD that works for everybody,” said Morley.

“Different people require different strategies and approaches, and often at different times in their career,” he added.

The first step for Thien, is acceptance.

“You have to reach out, you’re the only one who can do that,” he said. “You have to be honest with yourself; I have an issue, and it’s bothering me. If you can talk about it, you can deal with it. And there’s still life after that,” he said.

Outside of professional help, Thien has found that volunteer work sometimes helps him and other officers restore their faith in humanity.

Working in major crimes back in the early 2000’s, Thien faced a situation of chasing down a stolen vehicle and arresting a man at 2:30 in the morning. Months later he received a letter.

“The biggest reward in my job,” said Thien. “I sit here and months later I get a card that was mailed in from somebody I helped who just wants to say thank you.

“That meant the world to me, I’ve kept that letter ‘til today.”

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