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2016 sees rise in first responder suicides
It’s a grim statistic Lisa Jennings keeps track of every year.
In 2016, 19 first responders struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) took their own lives in B.C. — seven paramedics, seven police officers, four firefighters and one corrections officer. In 2015, that number reached 14.
Although they’re all tragic, the last suicide of the year was especially hard for Jennings since it occurred on the morning of Christmas Eve. At 3 a.m. she received a phone call, stating a first responder had hung himself from a bridge.
“It’s sad, but it makes me angry because I know something can be done,” said Jennings, a former Victoria paramedic who’s battling her own PTSD — a mental illness that occurs when someone is exposed to trauma involving death, threat of death, serious injury or violence.
According to the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, an organization in Ontario aimed at raising awareness and providing education and support for first responders in Canada, B.C.’s suicide rate among first responders is higher than any other province.
Jennings believes that’s because paramedics are overworked and repeatedly witness horrific scenes, but it’s a career she didn’t consider just a job, it was her passion.
During her 24 years as a paramedic in B.C. and Alberta, the 51-year-couldn’t get to work fast enough and never took calls home, going to bed knowing she did the best she could for those she treated.
All that changed in June 2014.
Jennings and her partner were in a Victoria store, helping a female patient who was having chest pain. The patient was very frail, Jennings recalls, and out of the blue, the three of them were assaulted by someone they knew.
“It was life altering. I was sick to my stomach,” said Jennings, noting the patient left the store with more injuries than before paramedics arrived. “We were livid. And then we felt betrayed by the system. You’re made to feel like you’re faking or you’re lying.”
Aside from the pain from her broken ribs, Jennings started to notice changes in her demeanor. She didn’t want to talk to anybody, didn’t answer the phone and isolated herself at home. Then the night terrors began, where she began reliving the call, along with other graphic scenes she’s witnessed over the years.
Between that day in June and November, Jennings made 13 trips to the Archie Courtnall Centre Psychiatric Emergency Services at the Royal Jubilee Hospital for treatment of suicidal ideation. Eventually her employment insurance medical benefits expired.
Jennings would love to return to work, but can’t get the help she needs. Her WorkSafeBC claim for PTSD was denied, sparking an appeal she’s still waiting a decision on. Of the 19 suicides recorded this year, she believes 16 had WorkSafe claims denied.
“The depression, isolation, hopelessness, you’re shunned by your colleagues and friends,” said Jennings, who lost her home and now lives in transitional housing. “I can’t walk or drive by an ambulance station without getting triggered. And certain places, like houses, I remember a bad call.”
Jennings maintains a website, You Are Not Alone PTSD BC, to provide support for first responders and draw attention to what she sees as inadequate worker’s compensation laws that make it tough to get help.
In the meantime, Jennings said management for first responders should do as much educational training as possible on PTSD since many continue to suffer in silence.
“People always say why did you get into the job knowing what it is? You don’t expect it to happen and you never know when it’s going to happen and for many it doesn’t,” said Jennings, noting it’s tough to break down the stigma. “We lost 19 brave souls that were saving lives and putting their lives in danger to do it and nobody is talking about this. This has to stay in the spotlight.”