Healing the Wounds
That Can't be Seen
(by Pauline Kerr)
Not all wounds are visible to the human eye but the pain is real.
The Invisible Wounds conference at the Best Western Plus in Walkerton Oct. 8, 2019 provided an open and supportive environment where first responders could discuss the occupational stress injuries inherent in professions including firefighting, policing, emergency medical service and related fields.
Founder of Invisible-wounds.ca, Deborah MacDonald has made it her mission to get people talking openly about mental health issues that affect first responders.
The conference was aimed at assisting first responders interested in learning about and addressing relationship issues, anger, and mental health challenges, including, but not limited to, hypervigilance, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, PTSI (post-traumatic stress injuries), and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Most of the people making presentations had personal experiences to share, and all strived to end the stigma that still surrounds invisible wounds.
George Hebblethwaite, deputy chief of the Hanover Police Service, was MC. With 35 years of policing experience, Hebblethwaite has experienced critical incidents both as an officer and as a supervisor. “It’s not like it was 15 or 20 years ago with PTDD,” he said bluntly. “Back then it was, ‘Suck it up Buttercup.’” He noted the suicides that so often result from PTSD “have a devastating affect on co-workers as well as family and friends. “We need to break the stigma,” said Hebblethwaite. “It’s OK not to be OK. We’re human. If you’re not feeling right, talk about it.” His message to managers and supervisors was to “stay on top of it. If someone seems troubled, say something.”
He noted that conferences like this one are valuable because the experiences of first responders “are not things the average person has to deal with.”
Dave McLennan is a retired police officer (30 years with Peel Police) who is founder and president of Boots On The Ground.
His goal at the conference was to increase awareness “that our program is out there for first responders. The 1-833 peer support helpline is available 24/7 for all first responders across the province, including police, fire, EMS and corrections, retired and serving, front line and civilian members.” McLennan said the conference is “great for spreading awareness of the resources that are out there to help … among people who care, understand and can empathize.”
Capt. Doug Sharp has served with Kitchener Fire for 27 years. His focus was on self-awareness. “It’s very important for first responders to be self-aware, so they know if they’re struggling, they’ll get help early.” He said it’s vital to “give first responders options for help; when someone identifies that they’re struggling, we need to ensure they get access to help with as few obstacles as possible.” He referred to this help as the “back end,” the “front end” being awareness. The Invisible Wounds conference is “extremely valuable in breaking the stigma among first responders” against speaking up and getting help. “Self help and professional help can greatly decrease the negative side effects of occupational stress,” he said. And that will save lives.
The numbers speak volumes. Sharp stated suicide claims more lives than LOD (line of duty) injuries – in 2017, 93 firefighters died in LOD incidents; 129 lives were lost to suicide. It’s similar for police – in 2017, LOD incidents claimed 103 lives; suicide claimed 140 lives.
Jennifer Grigg spent 27 years in the fire service, initially as a dispatcher and then as a volunteer firefighter. She said the Invisible Wounds conference “creates the environment to have the conversation.” She knows from personal experience the toughest part is getting started, reaching out for help. “It’s so important to be with like-minded people … sharing similar stories. “Mental health doesn’t discriminate,” she said. “You’re not abnormal if you’re struggling. We need to raise awareness. The conference provides that “safe space” where the conversation can happen. “We don’t have to struggle alone,” she said. “It’s important to know if we do get a diagnosis, the story doesn’t end there, it’s not a life sentence.” She found body language training helped her overcome her injuries, and shared what she learned so others could be helped.
Sgt. Ed Jermol is a 20-year police veteran, diagnosed with complex PTSD in 2016. His presentation focused on post-traumatic growth and resilience, “the things that you do proactively to move forward.” He said, “You can’t cure PTSD but you can learn how to navigate, how to deal with the effects of the injury. “One of the biggest messages,” he said, “is you’re going to have bad days. But there are going to be amazing days ahead.” He said PTSD made him “a better person in many ways, a better husband, a better father.” It also provided him with the opportunity to help others, to recognize what’s happening earlier. The Invisible Wounds conference “destigmatizes it for sure.” Knowing you’re not alone is a “huge part of post-traumatic growth … there’s strength in numbers.” The saying that comes to his mind is, “You can’t see the beauty of the stars without darkness.”
Bryan Stevens, a retired Ornge paramedic, was diagnosed with PTSD. He’s still helping people, as founder and president of Frontline Forward. The Invisible Wounds conference provides a “sense of community,” he said, “a sense of belonging, of hope.”
That’s the key of Frontline Forward, he said. “The resources are available for you there, for the challenges you face every day.”
MacDonald said the messages brought by the keynote speakers were “very well received.”
It doesn’t end with the Walkerton conference, though. On May 2, 2020 there’s a conference for first responders at the Guelph Legion.
From left to right:
Chief Mark Bellia, Saugeen Police Services,
Graham Trude, Ambassador for Wounded Warriors, Veteran, Police Officer
Sgt Ed Jermol
Captain Doug Sharp, Kitchener Fire
Dave McLennan, retired police officer, Founder of Boots on the Ground
Jennifer Grigg, retired Firefighter
Bryan Stevens, Founder of Frontline Forward
George Hebblethwaite, Deputy Chief of Hanover Police Services
Jon Walters, representing Leslie Ford Motors, Gold Sponsor who is sponsoring our documentary
Bruce MacDonald, retired from reserves, Piper, logistics.
Responding to our
(by Barb McKay)
When you think about mental illnesses like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) who do you associate them with?
Like me, your mind probably goes straight to soldiers who have experienced active combat or people who have been victims of violence or abuse. I’m willing to bet that you don’t automatically think about police officers, firefighters and paramedics. Until last week, I know I didn’t.
First responders are, by and large, taken for granted. There is an expectation, and rightly so, that when an emergency occurs they show up to deal with it. We identify with the uniform and understand at a high level what the job is, but how often do we look beyond the uniform and understand that a person is carrying out that job and they are affected by what they experience on the job?
I attended a conference here in Kincardine on Friday that was aimed at educating first responders about PTSD and connecting them with services and tools to help them cope and recover. Prior to the conference I sat down with a couple of the guest speakers who have decades of experience in their fields and who also have struggled with mental and emotional stress as a direct relation of their jobs. To say our conversation was eye-opening would be an understatement.
The speakers, a police sergeant and a fire captain, talked openly and honestly about the trauma they had experienced over the course of their careers and how, until quite recently, they had not felt comfortable talking to anyone about it. On Friday, they held nothing back. Being vulnerable is not a sign of weakness, they said, it’s a tremendous show of strength. It takes far more courage to seek help than to do nothing.
I think that is true now more than ever when the actions of police officers, in particular, are placed under a microscope. The growth of social media is making it increasingly difficult for police and other emergency responders to do their jobs. During my interview Friday I heard a term I was not familiar with, yet it is common one among first responders – ‘citizen journalists’; people who take photos with their smartphones at crash scenes, fires or crime scenes and send them to the media or post them Facebook and Instagram. Police officers, firefighters and paramedics see themselves featured in graphic photos that are all too often accompanied by incorrect information.
First responders take pride in the jobs they do, a veteran paramedic told me, but increasingly they feel like they are being scrutinized by media and social media and it adds to their stress. I’ve noticed the change too. When I started out as a reporter two decades ago first responders, whether they were police officers, firefighters or paramedics, talked openly to media at scenes. There was mutual trust and respect. Now that photos and comments can be shared with the world instantly and unfiltered, first responders are more wary. It’s frustrating for legitimate media because we have to work harder to build that trust. But I do understand.
It is impossible to understand what emergency responders go through until you walk the walk, and most of us never will. In my job I have attended horrific crash scenes, staked out murder scenes and watched firefighters run into burning homes. I am affected by what I’ve seen. But I’ve never had to tell someone that their child has died or failed to save someone’s life while performing CPR or dealt with a child welfare or elder abuse case. First responders do, every day. They set their own emotions and fears aside in order to help others. We need to start seeing the individuals in the uniforms and instead of finding things to criticize, we need to find better ways to support them.
Creating a Mind Shift:
First Responders Learning
To Cope With PTSD
(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 front-line 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.”