Elkford local and Fire Chief, Bernie Van Tighem, is part of an emergency responder group who are raising concerns and awareness for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and non-diagnosed trauma that first responders deal with regularly.
“There is a group of us first responders across Canada, there was a call that went out for people to help with this a few months back,” said Van Tighem. “I am in Elkford, I’m the Fire Chief but I’ve been off for almost a year now with PTSD and depression myself.”
While Van Tighem is a fire fighter, the movement is for all first responder services throughout Canada.
“It was lead by a paramedic from the Peel region in Ontario. We have been working on this for a few months, a bunch of paramedics, police, fire, dispatch and some nurses. Basically the idea is peer driven support, like peer meetings, where we develop a model that is currently being used by police services,” said Van Tighem.
The peer support and meetings is not intended for only diagnosed PTSD responders.
“There does not need to be any diagnoses or mental health injury. We get together on a regular basis and go through a process that helps,” said Van Tighem. “I think that one of the best pieces of medicine is to open up with peers – finding out that others have the same difficulties and knowing that you are not alone.”
When Van Tighem came out with his PTSD and depression, he shocked some of his colleagues. He was a pillar in the first responder community and was combating his depression for over 30 years. While it may shock some people, many fellow workers in the first responder industry retire early due to trauma.
“It floored a lot of people when I went off sick. I was hiding it so well for years I think there needs to be more knowledge out there and that it is impacting real people,” said Van Tighem. “One thing you will find out about ambulance services is that retired usually means burnt out and destroyed. The have left because they can no longer handle it.”
He intends to create a monthly meeting where fellow first responders can come and share stories. According to Van Tighem, there are numerous first responders in the area that could potentially benefit from the program. Participants can come once or come monthly, whatever they need.
“There are probably 150 plus firefighters, 60 or 70 paramedics and EMR’s, I have no idea on cops, maybe 30 or 40 in the Elk Valley, I think there will be people that need this,” said Van Tighem. “Someone can walk into a meeting and sit down and dump all their feelings out there. Then they leave with their shoulders lightened and never come back. Then there will also be people that will come every month. The idea is to have a group that may only have 15 people but it rotates through helping everyone that needs it.”
The program that is being implemented is based on the framework of a similar police program intended to deal with job related stress and anxiety. The group’s champions are still reworking the police program to include all first responders.
“We are just kicking this off. Our group has run the meetings. We get together on Skype and we run through a meeting and adjust as we go. What we are doing is based on Robins Blue Circle, which was created by a police officer in Ontario. The model we follow is similar and has been used for a few years now.”
The program is gaining public backing and continues to raise awareness for first responders with and without diagnosed PTSD. The first Wings of Change Peer Support Model meeting in B.C. will be held at the Sparwood Firehall at 7 p.m. on Feb, 12th.