Campaign puts spotlight on PTSD after 24 suicides among first responders
Published Wednesday, October 8, 2014 9:47AM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, October 8, 2014 11:07AM EDT
A new mental health awareness campaign is shining a spotlight on post-traumatic stress disorder among police officers, paramedics and firefighters, after the deaths by suicide of two dozen first responders in the last six months.
According to the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, the 24 first responder suicides since April include the recent deaths of two police officers who were suffering from PTSD.
Vince Savoia, founder of TCMT, said that his organization triple-verifies each report of a first responder suicide it gets. But the number is not exact, as it does not include unreported incidents and those his organization is not able to confirm.
To raise awareness about the prevalence of suicides, the trust, along with the Ontario Psychological Association and the Public Services Health & Safety Association, have launched the "You Are not Alone" campaign.
Savoia said the issue is personal, in light of his own experience with PTSD after attending to the scene of a murder as a paramedic more than 20 years ago.
In January 1988, Savoia was called to attend after 25-year-old Tema Conter was murdered in mid-town Toronto.
"What made the call so very unique for me was that when I looked at Tema for the first time, I thought it was my fiancée who had been raped and murdered," Savoia told CTV’s Canada AM Wednesday, describing the profound and long-lasting impact it had on him.
"So it hit very close to home for me, and I struggled with post-traumatic stress after that event for about 12 years before I got a diagnosis."
Savoia later went on to create TCMT in honour of Conter, and to provide support to first responders who may be going through distress.
Many first responders are reluctant to seek help because they see it as part of their profession to be "the fixers" -- the people who aid others first, Savoia said.
"They'll be running into crises when most people will be running away from it," he said. "They're so accustomed to responding to everybody else's cries for help, that they're very reluctant to take that back seat and actually view themselves as someone who requires help."
In addition to this stigma, there is also a fear among many that they may lose their job if they admit that they need support. Savoia said there have been documented cases of this happening, as those first responders in distress are viewed as not capable to continue working.
He rejects the notion that EMS crews attending to crimes, fires and other emergencies should be prepared for whatever they may encounter.
"What we find is that when a first responder tends to calls, they tend to question their morals and values, (asking) why do people do the things they do," he said. "You can't prepare for that, it's impossible to prepare for that.
"Nobody really signs up to see the underbelly of society, day in and day out."
Calling for a national strategy
Savoia said more needs to be done to fight the stigma associated with PTSD, including providing better treatment options for those in distress.
In 2013, the Mental Health Commission of Canada issued a set of guidelines focused on promoting employees' psychological health.
The National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (known as the Standard) also provides tools to help prevent psychological harm due to factors in the workplace.
But because the Standard, which is voluntary, dictates to employers what they need to do to support their staff, there's a reluctance among employers take it on, Savoia said.
"Everyone is saying there needs to be a concerted strategy … but nobody has the political will to make the changes that need to be done," he said.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention website has a list of crisis centres across the country that you can contact if you are in distress and are thinking about suicide.