By Diana Ballon | Dec 14, 2021
By the time Hayley Redman went on leave for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), she was sleeping at most a few hours a night, having nightmares of people hanging themselves, and experiencing tormenting flashbacks during the day.
“I had a lot of memories tucked away,” says Redman, the paramedic supervisor for Guelph-Wellington Paramedic Service and someone accustomed to witnessing traumas as a regular part of her job.
Redman spoke to me by phone from her kayak near Parry Sound where she was doing a five-hour paddle. Being out in nature and exercising, along with regular psychotherapy, are just some of the strategies she is using to heal from the PTSD caused by repeated exposures to traumas while on the job.
“I spent so much time worrying about other people’s mental health and ignored my own trauma,” Redman admits. As a peer support coordinator at her paramedic service, she is trained to reach out and check in with peers when there has been a significant call — whether that means a car crash with fatalities, a child’s death, trauma from burning, or loss of one of their own. However, she hadn’t reached out for or received that same support herself.
Unfortunately, Redman’s situation is more common than we think. First responders’ mental health is often overlooked, and PTSD is “immensely underreported,” according to a 2020 article entitled “First Responders and PTSD: A Literature Review,” published by Ashley Fitzpatrick in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services.
In partnership with the Ontario Provincial Police Association (OPPA), Dalton Associates launched the Encompas Mental Health Wellness Program in March 2020 to provide mental health services and support to the OPPA’s membership and their familes. Additionally, Dalton Associates provides specialized services to everyone from paramedics to firefighters, correctional officers and dispatchers, and municipal police.
People seeking help are connected with a care manager to help them navigate the often overwhelming and complex maze of mental health services. This care manager acts as a “concierge” for their mental health needs. Depending on the presenting concern, and what they are looking for, this could mean arranging everything from a psychiatric or psychological assessment, to ongoing psychotherapy or counselling, to outpatient or residential treatment, or even counselling for a child or partner having a difficult time coping. This specialized care management approach means that the care manager is essentially at the “hub,” ensuring that clients receive the services they need, based on their goals. The care manager connects with clients to help them access supports, they ensure they receive the services they need, and they then follow-up after clients leave the program to see how they are managing.
STIGMA STILL EXISTS
First responders can access wellness supports and services and the portal confidentially, with the added comfort of knowing they are being offered by an external organization. However, unfortunately some responders still don’t seek help.
“First responders come to seek help last,” says Kathi Janusiak, a registered psychological associate for Dalton Associates, and director of their WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board) services.
“Although responders are there to help other people, they set themselves to a different standard,” she says. “They worry that colleagues and superiors won’t be able to trust them if their sense of control or power is diminished.”
“And because their jobs require them to look and act composed, and to not be distressed, they don’t want to admit to their own vulnerabilities,” she says. They have always coped well in crises — this is one of their huge strengths — so acknowledging they are struggling can make them very self critical.
COVID EXACERBATES CAREGIVER ANXIETY AND BURNOUT
Of course, Covid has only exacerbated stress levels, and exposed first responders to even more trauma, and to requirements that make their jobs increasingly more difficult to carry out.
“We now have to spend minutes putting on PPE and respirators [rather than being able to respond immediately in a crisis],” says Redman. And there is added call volume, more compassion fatigue and other stressors too. She recalls having to tell a young woman holding a baby in her arms, and standing with a toddler at her side, that her husband had died.
“I was literally screaming the news to her through a respirator, and wasn’t able to console her,” she says. “It felt like I had failed her.”
These are devastating situations, but by coming together, debriefing traumatic scenarios with their peers, and finding support and connection with families, first responders can build resilience. More formal mental health services — such as counselling, psychoeducation and intensive treatment programs — are key to their recovery and healing.
“People are not meant to face and experience horrific and repeated traumas,” says Louise Hanson, Dalton Associates’ manager of Corporate Client Relations. These experiences are bound to take an emotional toil and without self-care and support it is not surprising that someone’s mental health would deteriorate. “Mental health struggles are not a personal failing. In fact it is normal to have difficulty processing and coping with recurring traumatic situations that first responders must witness or respond to as a regular part of their job,” Hanson says.
Admittedly, stigma does still prevent some responders from reaching out for help. Janusiak says that slowly the culture is changing. Gradually people are more willing to acknowledge they need help and are reaching out and asking for it.
Diana Ballon is a journalist specializing in mental health issues, who also has a master degree in social work. She works as the in-house writer for Dalton Associates, a mental health organization committed to sharing real stories of people’s mental health journeys and resilience.