WATCH ABOVE: Meet two people who are trying to stop the PTSD crisis among first responders. Laura Zilke reports
TORONTO – In the past 10 weeks, 11 Canadians whose job it is to confront the most violent, traumatic situations have reportedly killed themselves.
Seven of these first responders – four police officers, two paramedics and one federal corrections staff member – were in Ontario, according to the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, an organization that promotes mental-health awareness among Canada’s first responders.
“It’s a national tragedy, if you ask me,” said Vince Savoia, a former paramedic and founder of the Tema Conter trust.
“What angers me most is some organizations truly believe that if the suicide does not occur at work then it’s obviously not job-related.”
Savoia attributes some of these suicides to post-traumatic stress disorder or similar mental-health issues.
(Overall, mental illness and depression are found to play a role in the vast majority of suicides for which a coroner can determine a cause)
Savoia has been dealing with mental illness since developing PTSD in 1988. He responded to the murder scene of Tema Conter, a 25-year-old Toronto woman who had been bound, raped, beaten and stabbed to death.
“I thought it was my fiancée and for many of us that happens too often, when we respond to calls and it’s the smallest things that trigger that attachment,” he said.
“Tema was the victim of a random act of violence, it just wasn’t morally or ethically right.”
Savoia quit emergency services in 1992, but wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD until 2000.
Savoia set out on a cross-country tour to talk about PTSD and mental-health issues among first responders on April 28.
At the same time, he made a point of tracking the number of people in that field who killed themselves – because no one else was counting, he says.
“Nobody wants to talk about this, nobody is tracking the stats,” Savoia said. “So we made a conscientious decision, that during the tour, we wanted to pay attention to exactly what was going on.”
They were shocked by what they found: Over the next ten weeks, he said, 11 first responders killed themselves. Savoia collects the data by relying on reports from the emergency personnel community across Canada.
A Michigan study suggests 24 per cent of first responders suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder – three times the rate of the general population.
PTSD has been widely talked about in Canada as more veterans return from Afghanistan with the diagnosis. But the issue has been relatively muted among Canada’s police officers, firefighters and paramedics.
Savoia said he’s seen many officers afraid to come forward with their problems because of the possible consequences. He cited a police officer in Cape Breton who was reportedly fired after being diagnosed with PTSD.
Debbie Bodkin spent 24 years with the Waterloo Regional Police Service, including three months in 2005 in Darfur, Sudan interviewing genocide victims.
When she returned to Canada, “that’s when everything came back to me.”
“Bit by bit, I realized I was sort of segregating myself, not being the social person that I was. And then as time went on, over a couple months, I was pretty much miserable most of the time when normally I‘m a very positive and happy person,” she said.
Three months went by before she realized she had to seek help. But even during therapy, she didn’t take days off work because she didn’t want anyone to know.
“I went to work and then came home and locked myself in my house,” she said. “I was feeling guilty, [thinking] that as a police officer who went to help people overseas and help people in my job, I shouldn’t need help. I’m the helper.”
She said police officers often feel they have to be “immune” to the things they see in the job but that “just isn’t the way it is.”
Now retired, Bodkin is part of Savoia’s tour, talking about her experience with her colleagues across the country. But it’s not just frontline officers and paramedics who need to be at the talks, she said: Senior management needs to take notice of their employees’ mental well being.
“If they would, it would get rid of a lot of other problems that may go on in the organizations – sick time, divorces, public complaints and so on, which can all be traced back to a first responders’ mental illness,” she said.
“But if the senior management doesn’t recognize it then the people on the ground aren’t going to talk about it, either.”