Often when someone calls 911, it’s one of the worst days of their life.
For first responders, it’s part of their everyday schedule.
“First responders see so much traumatic and horrific incidents, and deal with it daily, weekly monthly, and over a career,” said Fire Chief Karen Fry of the Nanaimo Fire Department. “The difference is first responders are living in a war zone; they don’t get to return to their home country, a safe zone. Every corner they drive by reminds them of an incident.”
That’s why it’s important to talk about mental health, Fry said. She will be presenting this week at the first BC First Responder’s Mental Health Conference, and talk about leadership in fire service. Twenty-two first responders from Greater Victoria are attending, and a total of 62 are going to the conference from Vancouver Island and the South Coast.
Fry said an important recent change to normalizing mental health is adjusting the vernacular around it. When someone is struggling with PTSD or stress, she said they go on leave with a “stress-related injury.”
“I think that’s something that helps reduce stigma with mental health issues, which paint it like there’s something wrong with you, and people struggle with that,” Fry said. “But if you break your leg or hurt your back at work, you’re set up with adequate resources and an occupational therapist to get you back to work.”
Fry said that in 2018 alone, the Nanaimo Fire Department had five of their 100 staff take extended time off for stress-related injuries. Fry herself has struggled with stress, and sought help to work through it.
“It’s another level for first responders in a supervisor role, because people supporting their team are going through their own stress and supporting others; they’re bearing quite a lot.”
The Oak Bay Fire Department saw this first hand in March 2018 when their chaplain, and team life-line, Ken Gill died by suicide.
While many issues are common across the province, Fry said that Vancouver Island see’s an abnormally-high number of motor vehicle accidents, and deaths and overdoses related to the opioid crisis.
“A growing problem is ‘compassion fatigue,’” Fry said. “When you’re reviving the same person over and over again, it can really affect a person.”
Fry said that while work standards are getting better with mental health, there’s still more to be desired, including the time it takes for people to realize something is wrong versus being diagnosed.
In the meantime, fire departments are advocating for more peer-to-peer support, an open door to supervisors and family or spouse days to encourage those who might notice issues first to come forward.
The most prominent early signs of PTSD, Fry said, are sleep deprivation, weight loss and hyper vigilance. She added that 37 per cent of fire fighters would have enough criteria checked off to be diagnosed with PTSD, if they sought treatment.
“I’m really proud of the organizations taking the lead to make this an important part of it, to make it okay to talk about,” Fry said.
For more information on the conference, visit conference.bcfirstrespondersmentalhealth.com/
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