The average person in distress phones 911.
So who do 911 workers turn to during a mental health crisis?
There’s a disheartening lack of resources for first responders, according to former Toronto paramedic Vince Savoia.
“It’s a subject matter that most organizations do not wish to talk about. It’s something they’re very uncomfortable with and they pretend it doesn’t exist, regardless if it’s fire, police, EMS or military,” he said.
Savoia created the Tema Conter Memorial Trust in 2001, named after Conter, a young woman who was viciously raped, beaten and murdered by a convicted rapist in Toronto in 1988.
Conter resembled Savoia’s fiancee.
“As a result of me attending that particular homicide, I suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder for years before I even got a proper diagnosis,” said Savoia.
Emergency workers learn “you never know what’s going to bug you,” said Ottawa Paramedic acting Supt. Chris Cowan, noting it could be any smell, sight or sound.
Cowan remembers a woman’s daughter screaming during a call for a fatal cardiac arrest 12 years ago, as he watched a colleague break the bad news.
“Now it didn’t bother me but that’s one sound — I can still hear that today,” he said.
Calls involving children tend to be the most stressful, said Cowan.
First responders come into the job knowing they’ll have bad days, and “it’s more a matter of when,” said Cowan.
Despite having access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) at work, first responders tend to shun help, said Savoia.
“When you look at the psyche of an emergency responder, they generally tend to be Type A personalities who see themselves as the fixers of problems,” he said.
“So when they start to suffer themselves, it’s really hard for them to accept the fact that they may need to reach out and ask for help.”
Focusing on critical-incident stress, Savoia’s organization offers peer support for first responders.
“Our primary function is to provide immediate crisis intervention, so if they are in any sort of distress, we will hopefully de-escalate the stressor on the phone if we need to,” said Savoia.
“But there have been times where we’ve kept them on the phone and contacted outside agencies to make sure they get the help they need.”
First responders can call 888-288-8036 ext. 1 or visit tema.ca
Those who decide to seek professional help should find a psychologist specifically trained in dealing with law enforcement, military, or first responders, said Savoia.
IN HARM’S WAY
Police officers are asked to put themselves in harm’s way every day on the job, said former Mountie and psychologist Dr. Jeff Morley.
In his opinion, we expose them to:
Horrific violence, unimaginable atrocities, and all forms of suffering and evil humans inflict on each other.
Violent attacks, sexual assaults, gang rapes, torture and rape of children, infants, and animals.
Picking up the bodies of their dead friends and colleagues.
Telling parents their child has been killed.
Dealing with babies who have been mutilated, burned and killed – or left alive and facing unspeakable suffering with unfixable wounds, and permanent scars.
Being shot at, punched, kicked, spat on, attacked, and at risk in countless ways from pursuits to toxic chemicals and natural disasters.
After years of consistent, repeated exposure to these events, “we might need to be more concerned if an officer did not suffer any symptoms and could face such horrors and remained unmoved and unaffected,” said Morley.
HELP FOR OUR HEROES & THEIR FAMILIES
damagedonduty.com, Twitter: @damagedbyduty
Behind the Red Serge
911 Dispatchers: Breaking the Silence
West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat, wcpr2001.org
On-Site Academy, onsiteacademy.org
Badge of Life Canada, badgeoflifecanada.com
Tema Conter Memorial Trust, 888-288-8036 ext. 1
National Police Suicide Foundation (U.S.), 866-276-4615, psf.org