Creating a mind shift: First responders learning to cope with PTSD

Section: 
News

By Barb McKay

When Jeff Balch was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 2012, there was very little in the way of effective support available to him.

“When I got diagnosed, there wasn’t the publicity,” the Barrie Fire and Emergency Services captain said.“It was kept very quiet – nobody talked about it. So it was very difficult at first. I didn’t want anyone to know why I was off. In just a few years it’s amazing how far it has come – people are actually talking about it now.”

Balch is an experienced first responder who joined the Barrie fire department in 1996 after 17 years with the Canadian Armed Forces. There was a fair amount of stigma attached to the mental health of first responders and years of trauma exposure became internalized.

“It was the old adage – suck it up, and if you didn’t you were basically weak. It was the unknown. People were uncomfortable with the situation so they didn’t talk about it.”

The term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has only been around for a few decades and has, until recently, been associated mainly with military veterans and victims of violent crime. However, there is growing awareness about the mental and emotional stress faced by first responders.

Last Friday, retired nurse Deborah MacDonald organized an Invisible Wounds Conference at the Governor’s Inn. Experienced first responders, including Balch, counsellors and social workers made presentations with a focus on recovery from PTSD, substance abuse and stress for individuals who work in high stress environments. The conference, which was attended by approximately 90 people, was also intended to provide education and peer support.

Sgt. Doug Pflug has served with the Guelph Police Service for three decades and understands the toll that the job can take on a person. Starting out in his career he was not prepared for the impact the cases he was investigating would have on him.

“I remember the first dead child I dealt with and the senior officer that was there was laughing at me because I had tears in my eyes. ‘You’re a big university football player and you’re crying like a baby.’ Now, when I go on a call that with a young officer I say, ‘hey, are you okay? Let’s go for a coffee. Let’s talk.’ Because we’ve walked that walk.”

Pflug refused to see his struggles with mental stress as a sign of weakness and sought help through counselling, fitness and community service. He shares his experiences with other first responders to help them overcome their own struggles.

“The fact that we are getting help and helping people, that is a tremendous show of strength,” he said. “It’s a mind shift.”

Randi-Mae Stanford-Leibold is an author and mindfulness and meditation instructor, and was a guest speaker at Friday’s conference. She has worked as a crisis counsellor with the York Regional Police Service and with Victim Services TEMA. Part of her work has been preparing new police recruits for the experiences they will encounter on the job. She teaches them to use meditation and journaling to deal with trauma and stress.

“We want them even to just be aware. It doesn’t mean these tools will always prevent something from happening but it will allow them to have awareness to know that it’s sitting in their body, how to process it. It allows people to open up their awareness to what the body is storing. Sometimes when you are working as a first responder they carry stress in the body and they don’t always know what it is, just that they are feeling sick.”

Balch is glad that the mental and emotional challengers that first responders face is being recognized but he wishes that there were more counselling services and inpatient treatment specifically developed for his peers.

“I went to Homewood in Guelph. I was mixed in with the general population,” he said. “They didn’t get me and I didn’t get them because a lot of them were long users. I self-medicated for a short amount of time because I had finally hit that wall. If you had a first responder-specific program they could relate to each other a lot easier. I basically got told to stop sharing specific stories because I was traumatizing the other people. It made it very difficult for me.”

Sgt. Doug Pflug said it is extremely difficult to talk about his experiences with the average citizen.

“You don’t want to tell other people because they had no concept of the reality of what you went through. My wife is a CSI officer and she’ll come home and say,‘I investigated a baby that was murdered’ and boom, I’m right there. She doesn’t have to take an hour to set up the story. You go right to that little bit. That’s where we need the help.”

It’s not just the stresses of the jobs themselves that weigh on first responders. The growth of social media has created an army of ‘citizen journalists’ that forces responders into an unwanted and sometimes unflattering spotlight.

“We want to do well – we pride ourselves on the job we do,” said Bryan Stevens, along-time critical care flight paramedic. He said first responders are no longer only scrutinized by their superiors, but also by people who are following posts on social media. Citizen journalists, as first responders refer to them, snap photos with their smartphones at emergency scenes and post them to social media with little context or information, or worse, incorrect information.

Some people pass along photos to the media. Many newspapers and broadcasters don’t publish them, but some do.

“If it bleeds it leads, so you are afraid to make a mistake and afraid to show you’re vulnerable,” Pflug said. “All we want to do is serve and protect our community.”

The worst case scenario is when someone learns via a social media post that their family member has died.

“We take death notification courses and when you go to a loved one’s home they’ve already know that they’re dead all of that kindness and structure and groundwork that you want to lay to help these people, it’s gone,” Pflug said.

Informing the next of kin following a fatality is one of the most difficult jobs of a police officer. For Pflug, one such occasion sticks in his memory. A man who worked for the City of Guelph lost his wife in a car accident. Pflug was the officer who showed up on his doorstep.

“It’s terrible going to inform someone their loved one has died because you are that last face. And now every time I see him, even to this day, it’s awful because I was the guy who told him his wife had passed away.”

The pain and anxiety of trauma experienced on the job doesn’t disappear but you can learn to cope, Balch stressed.

“Self-awareness and self-reflection are at times things frontline staff have a hard time dealing with. Once you’ve had those experiences, you’ve experience them. You have to learn how to deal with them in a positive way. They are going to be a part of you for the rest of your life. PTSD isn’t a death sentence. A diagnosis doesn’t mean that you can’t carry on. Everyone reacts differently, everyone’s at a different stage…To be able to stop suicides – to be able to reach out to those people and say, hey there is hope, there is a light at the end of that tunnel – you don’t have to die is a big deal. That’s why I do it.”

Stevens said first responders need to support their colleagues and not judge.

“We have to identify that it’s okay to say, I’m not okay.”