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Healing the Wounds That Can't be Seen

Pauline Kerr

A summary of the Invisible Wounds conference for First Responders (October 2019)

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, 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.

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