Clara Hughes, Canadian Olympic cyclist and speed skater, came to my town during the summer and huge crowds came out to welcome her and listen to her speak. Hughes’ visit was a planned stop on Clara’s Big Ride, an annual bike ride across the country to encourage healthy conversations about mental illness – including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD? Isn’t that a severe mental illness for which only soldiers, police officers and paramedics are at risk? Me – suffer from traumatic events? I don’t think so. After all, I’m a firefighter. Yes, I still ride in the officer seat and wear a SCBA at calls, but I am tough. Firefighters don’t suffer from mental illness and we certainly aren’t affected by what we see, smell, hear, feel and otherwise sense at emergency scenes.
PTSD is defined by the Ontario government as an anxiety disorder that develops after exposure to a traumatic event or experience. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and intense feelings of fear or horror. Yes, firefighters do suffer from mental illness generally, and are exposed to traumatic events in particular. Some even suffer from PTSD, which not only affects them, but also affects their spouses, family and friends.
Take encouragement from Clara Hughes and many other Canadians who are taking the lead by acknowledging and discussing mental illness; it’s real, it’s in our fire stations and it affects all members of our fire-service families – those in the fire station and those who love and care for us. The anxiety and suffering of firefighters is not acceptable; it’s debilitating and affects our performance on the job – both career and volunteer. It affects our relationships, our mental health and also our physical health.
All firefighters need to be leaders when it comes to talking about mental illness. We can’t wait for others to pick up the mantle on this sensitive and growing issue. Indeed, some will deny that PTSD actually affects firefighters. People may say that firefighters signed up for it, that they are not forced to become firefighters, or that workplace claims by firefighters suffering from PTSD are simply cash grabs or even organized scams.
Firefighters need to recognize that it’s cool to seek help when they are suffering, and not cool to keep it inside and let it fester and cause pain. It’s cool to talk about a traumatic event you experienced or what triggers your PTSD, and not cool to pretend that those feelings are not there. It’s cool to be vulnerable and let others into your private world, and not cool to put up walls and not share your inner feelings. It’s cool to talk with your spouse and children about your traumatic events or PTSD, and it’s not cool to keep your situation from those who are closest to you. It’s cool to talk to your doctor, pastor or someone you trust about your traumatic events or PTSD, and not cool to think you can handle it without professional help. It’s cool to seek medical help with your personal situation and not cool to self medicate with drugs or alcohol.
Unfortunately, the suffering of firefighters from traumatic events has become politicized. Governments, both municipal and provincial, and some vocal individuals, are concerned about the potential cost of presumptive workplace claims for PTSD by first responders, which are similar to claims made for presumptive cancer.
Let me be clear – I am not a medical professional; however, my personal experience is that PTSD in the fire service is real. Responding as a firefighter to horrific and gruesome scenes over the past 35 years has left its mark on me. The sights, feel, sounds, smells, and, indeed, the aura of an emergency scene affects me and impacts all of us. I have suffered for almost 30 years now following an incident that involved a car colliding with a snowplow. I was the first to arrive on scene as the driver lay dying and trapped inside his vehicle. The night terrors are the worst as they impact not only me but also my family. It is normal to be affected when someone you are holding dies; it is normal to be affected by the sight and smell of a mangled, burned body; it is normal to be affected as you gather up body parts at a vehicle collision. What is not normal is to keep your feelings to yourself.
Take the lead and make yourself vulnerable. Talk about your anxiety, fears, and triggers and, just as importantly, seek support and ask for help. Talk to your spouse, your fire service critical-incident stress team, your pastor, your family doctor. You lead as you are.
For more information on PTSD and support services, visit the Canadian Mental Health Association at www.cmha.ca
Doug Tennant is the fire chief in Deep River, Ont. Contact Doug at
*Carousel photo from Flickr by Shona/Reikilass
Leaderboard: December 2014
It’s time to take action against PTSD
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