In the second instalment of a three-part series, Tessa Clayton, a former intern with the Trail Daily Times, studies the impact Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has had on many firefighters and steps many have taken to overcome the debilitating issue
Dr Cory Wowk, a physician at the Calgary Fire Department’s wellness and fitness centre, says he and his colleagues treat firefighters with some element of a mental health issue at the centre almost every day. While this doesn’t mean full-blown PTSD, even a minor diagnosis of mild depression “may play a role of some PTSD stuff in the past.”
Implications of PTSD on the job depends on the severity of the issue, he says, because it can hinder firefighters from performing at top level, cause poor sleep, lower concentration skills, and increase irritability. Only in extreme cases is a leave of absence given, as Wowk says these factors often affect the firefighter’s quality of life more than their job, and as such are still able to work effectively.
But the biggest hurdle is that PTSD is a very personal issue.
Retired Fruitvale Fire Chief Len Toupin knows how hard it is to admit that there may be a problem — he said it took him far too long to own up to the fact he had an issue that needed to be dealt with.
Most firefighters are “self-medicating,” meaning they prefer to deal with emotions and other stresses on their own, another cultural aspect that makes getting help difficult.
This means that more often than not, mental health issues within fire departments go unreported and undiagnosed — making it harder for medical professionals to provide the help that firefighters need.
The most in-depth study done on mental health within fire services was back in 1986, by Peter A. Boxer and Deanna Wild, who wanted to identify potential workplace stressors, assess psychological distress, problems with alcohol abuse and find out if there was a relationship between the three.
“Results of this study suggest that over one-third of the firefighters surveyed were experiencing significant psychological distress,” the report states. The authors also concluded that “it is significant that the firefighters surveyed scored poorly on all measures of mental health in comparison with the results of other published studies utilizing these instruments in community or occupational settings.”
In 2009, a joint study by the University of Ottawa and University of Washington focused specifically on PTSD and duty-related trauma within fire services in Canada and the United States. In Canada, 625 firefighters were surveyed.
The study suggests that 1.2 per cent of the Canadian community male population had PTSD, while 17.3 per cent of the Canadian firefighers surveyed were found to have the disorder.
The study also showed that Canadian firefighters fit right between the percentages of Vietnam-era veterans overall and those wounded in combat who had been diagnosed with PTSD (15.2 and 20 per cent respectively).
It went on to say that 85 per cent of the Canadian firefighters had at least one traumatic incident exposure within the past year, based on categories such as “serious injury accidents excluding nonfatal motor vehicle accidents,” and “civilian fire fatalities.”
Dr. Wowk said he had a recent discussion with a CFD firefighter who was wondering if he maybe had PTSD.
“I think his answers probably give us the answer: He said he’s seen 20 — and he could count them, 20 kids exactly — that had died on his time on the job that he’s seen, and he said he could picture pretty much every one of their faces,” he shared.
“That’s something that’s shocking even to me, and I’m used to dealing with some of this stuff.”
“But we don’t think of these things and these front-line workers and the things they see and do and have to live with.”
Part Three in this series will be published next Friday.