Comment: September 2015
My last editorial about first-responder mental health and our commitment to write about it, was in March. Since then, Manitoba included PTSD in its presumptive legislation, fire chiefs in British Columbia passed a resolution to work with the province to do the same, and Ontario chiefs launched a training program to help identify signs and symptoms of occupational stress injuries (see page 7).
As those milestones developed, Nathalie Michaud and Wayne Jasper travelled across Canada, telling firefighter
groups about mental health and the need to talk – and ask – about it.
I first met Nathalie in Penticton, B.C., in June and heard her sometimes-unbelievable story of survival after finding her husband, Fire Chief Richard Stringer, hanging between trucks in the fire hall in Otterburn Park, Que., in January 2010. Stringer’s PTSD was never diagnosed; he never got help.
Nathalie’s PTSD – the result of Stringer’s death and her experiences after 9-11 and Lac-Megantic – was identified, albeit not until 2014; her new-found resilience, along with Jasper’s unconditional friendship and support, is remarkable.
Nathalie’s presentations at the Fire Chiefs Association of BC conference and in Summerside, P.E.I., at the Maritime Fire Chiefs Association conference in July, were the most compelling I have witnessed – as raw as Fredericton firefighter Jeff Mack’s chronicle of PTSD and alcoholism after he and his partner were almost killed in a 2005 fire, and as captivating as that of engine driver David Griffin, whose seven colleagues died in the Sofa Super Store fire in Charleston, N.C., in 2007.
In the first six months of this year, 28 Canadian first responders ended their lives, unable to cope with what they experienced on the job.
In Penticton and in Summerside, fire chiefs spoke to me after the presentations about their PTSD and treatment. One chief is off work and struggling to have his counselling covered – having to document each incident over his 20-plus year career that caused him stress; another is working through a fire-service boundaries issue that has been played out in newspapers, and has had to navigate a similarly challenging system.
Now that we’re talking about mental health and the (perceived) stigma has been all but extinguished, proper identification, treatment, and a streamlined system that helps rather than hinders those who require coverage, are necessary. Achieving those milestones is the next challenge.