A recent look at the stress experienced by the province’s first responders is drawing a stark conclusion – that emergency response personnel have far fewer resources than they need.
When local RCMP responds to an event such as a death or an accident, officers are likely to check on each other, according to Staff Sgt. Svend Nielsen of the 100 Mile RCMP Detachment. This is followed by a critical instance group debriefing, which may include a psychologist or psychiatrist to run the meeting.
Nielsen said if additional support is needed beyond what the local detachment can offer, most members will travel outside of the community.
“We see things that people generally don’t want to see or expect to see,” said Nielsen, who’s been with the RCMP for 16 years. Police officers are known to have a high level of functioning and mental toughness, but they are still very much human. “Like anyone dealing with trauma, we are just like them.”
In April, the federal government unveiled a $40-million action plan to address post-traumatic stress injuries among emergency responders and other front-line personnel.
“While safety personnel work in multiple jurisdictions, each with their own responsibilities for providing mental health supports to their personnel, there is a clear need for national leadership on the challenges they all face,” said Zarah Malik, the spokesperson for Public Safety Canada in an email. “The Action Plan is an important step in a long-term approach to address these issues.”
Half of the funding is being split between a pilot program providing online access to cognitive behavioural therapy and a 10-year study on the mental wellness of new RCMP recruits.
“The government recognizes that public safety personnel in rural communities may face additional difficulties receiving the care they require in comparison to those in urban communities,” said Malik. The pilot is looking to provide greater access to care for personnel in rural areas.
The other half is supporting a national research consortium involving the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment.
“There is an idea that first responders deal with things differently than the general public, which I would think is true to a certain extent, considering our training and the experiences we’ve had, but it is still difficult,” said Nielsen.
More than a decade in the fire service has led to many traumatic events for Fire Chief Roger Hollander of 100 Mile Fire Rescue. He said there is no timeline for a post-traumatic stress illness. Training or years of experience make injuries and death routine occurrences, but one traumatic event can drastically change how the mind works.
“There have been a few people who’ve left the department because they got to a point where they started having nightmares or uncertainty about moving forward,” said Hollander. “They were able to recognize it before it became too much.”
Research suggests there is a stigma associated with being a helper who asks for help. It has become prevalent in front-line organizations and can be a significant barrier to seeking help when it is needed.
“As a police officer, talking about stuff to other people is difficult because it can involve a criminal case or an on-going investigation. That is why we have a peer-to-peer program and workplace advisors,” said Nielsen.
But beyond in-house services, Nielsen talked about finding something that helps to work through harder-than-expected days. For him, it’s talking to his wife.
“I will go home and express how I am feeling,” said Nielsen. “I have gone home and wept at the feet of my wife. It’s difficult to rehash those feelings but that is my process.”
“We need to talk about it”