Helping our first responders deal with the wounds that can’t be seen



By Pauline Kerr


Some wounds you can see, like cuts and burns. Some you can’t, like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both can be disabling and both need to be treated effectively and with compassion.


That was the message at the Invisible Wounds Conference for First Responders.


The statement by Sir Winston Churchill on the Invisible Wounds website says it best: “If you’re going through Hell, keep going.”


Each of the speakers at the Oct. 24 conference addressed a different aspect of helping those suffering from occupational stress injuries heal and “keep going.”


The goal of the conference was to open a dialogue among those who assist first responders. There’s still a stigma attached to occupational stress injuries including PTSD, even though they can be diagnosed and treated, no different from any other wound. Talking about it, networking with others in the field, and implementing programs to prevent injuries from becoming tragedies among first responders is vital.


There were 76 people at the conference, some from as far away as Hamilton, although it was geared to local first responders.


The speakers included Anne Pickering, a clinical social worker from Toronto. She survived a devastating house fire while she was away at university.


“I was trapped for 50 minutes before I was rescued,” she said.


Her recovery was difficult. She’d suffered smoke inhalation and burns to 20 per cent of her body, as well as PTSD, anxiety and depression. And she was angry.


Learning to live with PTSD and loss is what led her to become a social worker. Now she uses what she learned during her recovery to help others.


Pickering described the conference as “incredible. Invisible wounds, especially among first responders, are absolutely there.” Dealing with the stigma is incredibly important,” she said.


Andy MacDonald is a retired fire chief from Brampton, and a consultant with Homewood Health.


Reducing the stigma and getting people talking is important to living happier and healthier – healthier being the key word – lives, he said.


In his 35 years as a firefighter, seven as chief, he’s seen first hand the negative impacts of responding to trauma. “We have to acknowledge we have a problem,” he said.


He strives to break down the stigma of the invisible wounds that are “a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances” through peer support networks. He’s a founding member of Camp F.A.C.E.S., a camp for the families of first responders who have taken their own lives.


His “Kitchen Table” talk at the conference was about providing the tools people need to deal with the stress from their work.


Having a conference like this close to home is “great,” he said. “It’s not far for them to travel for this.”


The idea of the conference, he said, is to “get people talking … acknowledge an injury.” He said the one event that’s accomplished a lot in removing the stigma is the Invictus Games, where competitors suffering from PTSD “were treated equally. It’s a great wat to raise public awareness.”


Rev. Michael Clarke is an Anglican priest with a background that includes serving as a uniformed officer with the Peel Regional Police. He proudly wears on his lapel his Order of Canada miniature, awarded in 1995 for his work with street youth. It’s one of many honours he’s received.


He describes PTSD as a “moral trauma.” Clarke focused on the “spiritual healing” that must take place, to deal with the shame and guilt that characterize this type of injury.


Clarke said he was pleased to see so many chiefs at the conference because it’s so important to “get the word out to department heads” about what needs to be addressed.


Beth Milliard, a sergeant with the Peel Regional Police, and Jen Thompson did a joint presentation entitled, “Beyond the Critical Incident.”


Milliard supervises the department’s four-person dedicated unit and the 50-person peer support team that assist those who need help with anxiety, depression and substance abuse.


“It’s not all about the ‘critical incident’,” she said, speaking of the importance of overall mental health.


One key member of the team is a service dog named Blarney who attends funerals and visits schools as part of his job.


“He’s a great conversation starter,” said Milliard.


The most important aspect of the conference, in her opinion, was the opportunity for networking, and discussion on sharing resources.


Thompson echoed much of what Milliard said, and spoke of the need to be “proactive,” explaining that initially, a lot of their work was reactive. The shift to being proactive marks an important change in the way “invisible wounds” are treated. “We need to change our approach,” she said.


And that means “breaking down barriers, talking,” she said.


Nick Halmasy is a psychotherapist who states he spent 10 years as a firefighter and emerged from the experience “unscathed.”


He speaks of the need for a wholistic approach to mental health, and working toward the goal of having no more need for healing “invisible wounds.”


He stresses there’s no single way “to get through this,” and talks about fostering resilience through listening to people and giving them the resources and tools they need.


One of the 76 who attended the conference was Jake Mervyn, part of a group from St. John Ambulance. Mervyn is chief of the Medical First Response unit in Owen Sound who also works with the military. He said the conference gave him an opportunity to compare the differences in how the military and civilian world approach “invisible wounds.”


He found the conference “very well done,” he said. “The speakers were fabulous.”


Overall, there was a sharing of information at the conference, and much discussion of new ideas that will benefit first responders in the area.


Organizer Deborah MacDonald said the conference was designed “to assist in creating awareness of some of the specific occupational stressors unique to first responders, and will aid in decreasing associated stigma associated to occupational stress injuries that may be sustained. Our goal is for every first responder to have opportunities to proactively develop and hone their resiliency skills, and access peer support … and early intervention and treatment for symptoms of declining mental health if possible, before it morphs into PTSD.”


With that in mind, MacDonald describes a proposed group, 100FirstResponderswhocare. Details are on The aim is to provide ongoing funding for worthy organizations as well as future Invisible Wounds conferences, and allow people with a strong interest in assisting first responders a venue for doing so that doesn’t require committing a lot of time.