Firefighters face invisible foe in post traumatic stress disorder

Fire departments starting to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder

In the first of a three-part series, Tessa Clayton, a former intern with the Trail Daily Times, studies the impact PTSD has had on many firefighters and steps under way to overcome this debilitating mental health issue that strikes first-responders.

Professional firefighting is considered one of the most dangerous and stressful occupations — these first responders attend not only fire-related incidents, but are also trained emergency medical technicians. They witness on a daily basis events that would leave most people in shock.

Fire departments across Canada have seen an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms among firefighters and have decided more needs to be done to combat this mental health issue.

Which is why on Sept. 27, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) unanimously passed a resolution to lobby the federal government to create a committee examining the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder and its subsequent addictions within fire services personnel across the country, and to provide funding for treatment services.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, more commonly known as PTSD, is a term commonly associated with military personnel, a mental health issue most civilians perceive as something that couldn’t possibly affect them.

It’s caused by a traumatic event, called a stressor, that involves death or serious injury to oneself or others — things like violent personal assault, car accidents, natural disasters and military combat are all listed stressors by the Canadian Mental Health Association.

But PTSD can hit closer to home than we realize.

It’s a well-known issue within the RCMP. Statistics provided by Veterans Affairs Canada, stated more than 1,700 Mounties were receiving post-traumatic stress disorder pensions — up from 1,437 in 2010 and 1,239 in 2009.

And today it’s expected that when our Canadian soldiers return from military missions overseas, a certain percentage of them will eventually be diagnosed with PTSD.

That begs the question: if our national police force and military members are expected to suffer from this disorder, what does the local situation look like when it comes to first-responders, who attend critical incidents on a daily basis?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is one of several anxiety disorders that affect one in 10 people, making it the most common mental health problem, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.

The disorder is very individualistic but there are common symptoms: re-living the event through memories, nightmares or flashbacks, avoidance and emotional numbing, increased alertness and aggression or insomnia. It can also lead to drug or alcohol addiction, depression or other illnesses.

Len Toupin, a retired fire chief from Fruitvale knows first-hand how it feels to lose the ability to lead a “normal life.”  He was a volunteer firefighter with the regional fire service for 30 years before retiring at the end of 2009.

The incident happened more than 20 years ago, near the beginning of his career, but he can still remember the events of Dec. 17 as if it were only yesterday.

Toupin was leaving the Beaver Valley Arena in Fruitvale, when a hockey player went down at centre ice, suffering a massive heart attack. He just happened “to be in the right place at the right time,” performing CPR until the ambulance came and transported the player to the hospital. The man, an acquaintance of Toupin’s, did not survive.

“Everything was great for about two weeks and then I woke up in the middle of the night one night and there it was.”

Toupin thought he was having a heart attack. His doctor ran tests, but everything came back negative. He grew restless, wasn’t able to relax or fall asleep, and says every time he closed his eyes the incident would play out again in his mind.

“And that’s all you keep seeing, all that — and actually right now, I can close my eyes and I can still see exactly what I saw that night.”

The symptoms persisted, so to help him sleep Toupin was prescribed medication that helped combat the panic attacks he was experiencing.

He never received an official diagnosis, but was exhibiting visible signs of PTSD.

The ‘rescue mindset’

Fire departments across Canada have measures in place to help those who may be affected by a particular call  which are mostly covered by health benefits.

But despite the range of services available to those who may be struggling, the actual numbers of how many members access these is relatively unknown, due to the sensitivity of the issues at hand and the confidentiality concerns.

Ian Crosby, co-ordinator of the wellness and fitness centre for the Calgary Fire Department (CFD), said only one to two per cent of their members are officially diagnosed with PTSD each year.

“There’s that stigma attached to it I think in the general population anyway but in emergency services I think it’s compounded even further,” Crosby explained.

“You’re dealing with people that tend to have a ‘rescue mindset,’ where you’re helping others and not necessarily looking to whatever issues you might be having internally. You tend to kind of put that aside.”

And while this attitude is courageous, it can be dangerous as well.

Part 2 of this series will run next Friday.