Letter to the Editor re: PTSD support
I find myself the fire chief in a small-town department suffering from PTSD, depression and anxiety from a 30 year career in Fire and Emergency Medical Services.
The chief in these small departments is often first on scene for every call – it is a stressful situation – always on call with few days off. Many calls and events conspired to cause me unmanageable stress and I had to leave work to care for myself. I had no concentration, irritability, no memory, inappropriate stress reactions, anger and depression. This is a scenario faced by many first responders (firefighters, paramedics, RCMP, nurses, dispatchers etc.) throughout the Elk Valley and across Canada.
But this is Canada, one of the greatest countries with the best medical system in the world. If any country will take care of its first responders when they need help, this one would. Each Canadian province is set up with government agencies specifically put there to help injured workers, are they not?
I have come to discover it’s not as simple as it seems. For me, WorkSafeBC is no help; I’m told I have a case that does not meet its narrow terms. They don’t dispute the diagnosis but they are denying me benefits and forcing me to appeal. Other provinces are beginning to see the light and develop presumptive legislation, B.C. municipalities support it but our province resists.
I went to Interior Health, our local health board. First I was told I had to wait more than a month to see a counsellor. I called and said that would not work, that I was in crisis, and it was pushed forward a couple of weeks. The counsellor I saw did only talk therapy, which had not helped me in the past. More delay while I wait to see a psychiatrist. I get in to see a psychiatrist and find out that yes, the therapy I requested is what I need but it’s not offered here — maybe I could find it privately, I’m told. In the meanwhile, we’ll prescribe you some additional medication. I was gobsmacked.
So, I fired them and went and found my own help. This help I found in Lethbridge, Alta., travel and expenses at my cost. Additionally, my doctor in Elkford has been a great resource.
Hoping to help prevent this from impacting local responders I participated in developing a peer focused support group with a group of first responders from across Canada. I’m hoping to get this model out in as many places in B.C. as I can. Strong peer support can help first responders deal with the pressures we face.
For those of you with a peer facing these same issues, it’s important to stay in touch. Don’t just invite them to the occasional function – you need to check in every once in a while, just drop a line and say hello. The stigma involved in dealing with a mental illness can easily lead to feelings of abandonment and a sense of being alone.
PTSD awareness is at an all-time high. Alberta has presumptive legislation now, as does Manitoba. New Brunswick and Ontario are on the way. But the resources for the firefighter in Anytown, Canada, are not defined and not easy to access. I know of five first responders who have killed themselves this year already. There are probably more I am not aware of. This has to stop.
To this end I am kicking off the Wings of Change Peer Support Model in B.C. at the Sparwood Firehall at 7 p.m. on Feb, 12th. The group will then decide when and how often it needs to meet thereafter. If you are a first responder and having difficulty with an aspect of your role please come out and see how this can benefit you. No need for a formal diagnosis and there are just peers here, supporting each other.
Bernie Van TighemElkford, B.C.