A recap of the Invisible Wounds seminar for First Responders (September 2021)
A special Invisible Wounds seminar designed specifically for first responders and spouses, partners and family members, was held Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 at The Best Western Plus Walkerton Hotel and Conference Centre. Because of the pandemic, the seminar was offered both live and as a webinar.
MC was Fire Chief Guy Gallant, South Bruce Fire Rescue.
Speakers were Malia Leighton, a student, whose presentation, “My Keeper” was about being the daughter of an OPP officer. She addressed the group via computer, from her home on Manitoulin Island.
Barb Ambrose Sharp and Doug Sharp did a presentation entitled, “When FIRE gets in the way.”
Dr. Christina Harrington spoke about “Tired of COVID? Aren’t we all!”
There was a brief presentation from Boots on the Ground.
The final presentation was by Lesley Dalzell, who provided an overview on various counselling modalities.
The seminar was presented by Deborah MacDonald, with co-facilitator George Hebblethwaite, deputy chief of the Hanover Police Service. Gallant, who is from Nova Scotia and joined South Bruce Fire Rescue “at the height of the pandemic,” noted that being a first responder in an area like this means living in the community where you work. Like many first responders, he said he loves to help others, but he’s not so great at accepting help. “We’re doing a lot better with first responders,” he said. “The next step is families.” That’s where Leighton’s presentation came in.
She is a young woman who is very involved in her community and intensely proud of her dad. She spoke about growing up as the child of a first responder, and feeling “protected but scared.” Policing is not just a career but a lifestyle, she said. It’s like having an extended police family. But it also means shift work, overtime, calls in the night, working on holidays, and worrying. She spoke about gossip on social media, and how hard it is on the children of police officers and other first responders when there’s an incident. “His job is to serve and protect,” she said. “My job is to keep him strong.” That means putting on a brave face. She knows the risks, and what she’s getting into, and wants to follow in her father’s footsteps to become a police officer.
Barb Ambrose Sharp is a child and youth worker; her husband Doug is a fire captain in Kitchener. Together, they discussed the impact of being a first responder on family. Doug began by saying, “We need to do a better job of supporting family.” He spoke of his own determination early in his career to not bring the job home to his family. “Not a good plan,” said Barb. She said they embraced the lifestyle as a couple and then a family. She was and is proud of her husband and celebrated his career. However, for him the positives faded a bit, and a black cloud moved in, she said. The black cloud was frustration, anger and overreaction, and he became emotionally unavailable.
“It’s hard to live in the city where you work,” said Doug. “Triggers are everywhere.” A walk in the park triggers memories of a call to that same park. “There’s responder mode and home mode,” he said. He described himself as a “problem solver” who’s able to compartmentalize feelings when on the job. However, sometimes he got stuck in “responder mode” at home. What was needed was a plan that was different from the first one. And that meant counselling for both of them, despite the stigma about seeking mental health counselling. Now, when Doug comes home still in “responder mode,” Barb gives him space. “It has to be respected and planned for,” she said. And he has to get back to her and “give context.” She stresses that she needs to have a voice that’s listened to and respected as well. “It’s a team effort,” said Doug.
The kids also need a voice. Said Doug, “If we don’t give them a voice, they think it’s their fault.” At the end of the day, it’s all about communication, and resilience, he said. “You have to plan ahead.”
MacDonald commented that first responders “want to protect their family.” A person in the crowd spoke about the need to “filter out that old-school attitude. It has to come from the senior officers. But they’re the most damaged.” COVID-19 has made everything more difficult, but has been especially hard on first responders.
Harrington, who specializes in supporting first responders, especially armed forces personnel, discussed COVID fatigue. It’s real and pervasive. People really are exhausted, and there are many reasons for that, she said. One reason is that we’re spending more time at our computers, and the blue screen interferes with sleep. We’re less active. And people in general aren’t coping well. For example, we’re seeing more depression, more car collisions. And now comes the fourth wave. First responders work shifts, which interferes with sleep patterns. And with the pandemic-related stresses, there’s a danger of something called compassion fatigue. “People are just done,” she said, “in a way I haven’t seen before.
Hebblethwaite said he’s seen “some of our more reliable people seem to have an edge to them. When the ‘steady Eddies’ show stress, it’s a concern.” Harrington discussed tips for calming, such as limiting exposure to stress, including stressful people; connecting socially; taking breaks; and writing. Breathing deeply and slowly – something a mask prevents – is important. So is posture. Placing one’s legs against a wall while lying on the floor can help. MacDonald summed up what a lot of people are feeling about the pandemic: “I refuse to live in fear.”