HEALTHMentalDealing With The Stigma Of A Mental Health Injury

Dealing With The Stigma Of A Mental Health Injury

By: Michael Swainson – Former First Responder, PTSD Survivor and PTSD Educator 

Is there a stigma attached to developing post-traumatic stress disorder as a first responder? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is yes. 

Why is that? 

For decades first responders were taught to “suck it up” or worse yet, have a few drinks and just forget about that horrendously bad call that you responded to last week. First responders for a long time were under the impression that only the weak minded and those not tough enough developed PTSD. Wrong, wrong and wrong!

Tens of thousands of first responders across North America have sailed over the edge of the PTSD cliff. I have met a lot of them in my classes. I’m proud to say that I’m also one of them. Why would I be proud to say that I developed PTSD as a 25-year first responder?

How does it begin?

I developed PTSD because I answered the call for help from the general population as a full time paramedic, a volunteer firefighter and an Emergency Medical Dispatch supervisor. I will always be proud of the work I did and the people that I helped in my career. And despite developing PTSD, I am proud to now teach classes to first responders all over North America on PTSD awareness, education and coping strategies. I was able to help a lot of people in my career as a first responder but now I get to help the people who help us and quite honestly it is about a thousand times more rewarding for me to help the first responder. 

A few years ago I was travelling with a colleague through the American Midwest on a sort of brainstorming tour for the Survival Skills for the First Responder class I developed six years ago. We stopped at a fire station to do a one hour presentation for them about the class and when we walked across the apparatus floor we noticed that they had printed on the side of their fire engines the words The Bravest.

How high is your firefighting bar?

How high have you set the bar when you write stuff like that on the side of your departmental vehicles? That department lost a firefighter to suicide the previous year. Assuming that PTSD may have been a part of that firefighter’s story, would it have been the bravest thing that firefighter ever did if they would have walked into the fire chiefs office and said, “Please help me!” What takes more courage, running into a burning building or showing emotional vulnerability as a firefighter when you are having mental health issues related to the job?

Fortunately the culture in the world of first responders is starting to change but we have a long way to go. I ask my students in my classes the question, can PTSD be prevented? The responses I get are usually split right down the middle. Half say yes and the other half says no. The best answer I can give my students is that first responder PTSD “could” be prevented. 

How? Education. If we educate our first responders on just exactly what repeated exposure to traumatic stress can do to the first responder brain, how to recognize it and give them some hard target coping strategies then they may have a fighting chance against PTSD. Is going to a critical incident stress debriefing once or twice a year enough? Maybe not as we are losing first responders at an increasing rate and as a whole we have to do a much better job at looking after the most valuable resources our fire departments have, our first responders. 

The value of life and death

How much time and money do we invest in training a firefighter over say a ten year period? Tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. What is a ten year veteran firefighter worth to your department? Every department seems to have money for training on SCBA, confined space, high angle rescue etc. Sadly, I hear some departments say that they do not have monies in their budgets for mental health education and training. Some of our fire services across Canada really need to rethink their priorities.

Michael Swainson runs Rescue 1 Emergency Training in Kelowna, British Columbia. He is the creator and lead instructor for the Survival Skills for the First Responder program and the Survival Skills for the Emergency Dispatcher program. Michael has taught his classes across British Columbia, the Yukon, Southeast Alaska, the California and Kansas Highway Patrol’s and at regional conferences across the United States for the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF). Michael is on the teaching faculty for the ICISF and Survival Skills for the First Responder is on the list of approved courses taught by them. 

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