‘I was scared of appearing weak’: First responders speak out on PTSD

Watch above: First responders speak out on PTSD. Laura Zilke reports. 

TORONTO –Andy Cunningham still recalls every detail of the day 20 years ago when he came across an infant who drowned in his parents’ tub – the Toronto address, the time of day, the little boy’s name.

Decades later, the veteran firefighter’s still haunted by the ghosts of his work.

“As my depression grew worse I started have nightmares, flashbacks – I call them my ghosts. It was all the bad calls that I had run that I had never thought about for years and years. I had never given them a second thought and they were intruding in my life,” Cunningham said.

 “He became kind of a surrogate for all the others. He would show up around the anniversary of his death in my head.”

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Cunningham was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder during the last few months of 2012 – after years of struggling to focus or even make it into work on time.

The mental illness affects approximately 9.2 per cent of Canadians, 76 per cent of them reporting the disorder was caused by one event, according to a study from McMaster University.

The study says the one traumatic event usually includes the unexpected death of a loved one, sexual assault or seeing someone badly injured or killed.

But emergency personnel are twice as likely as the general population to suffer from PTSD, a University of British Columbia study concluded.

That means almost one in five of the country’s police officers, firefighters and paramedics suffer from relived traumas that can be debilitating.

READ MORE: How to get help if you or someone you know has PTSD

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But the symptoms of PTSD – which can range from depression to flashbacks – may not appear right away or be caused by a single incident. In Cunningham’s case, it was almost 20 years before he sought treatment.

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His symptoms included flashbacks to a specific moment of a call, or endlessly second-guessing decisions he made on the job.

“I was showing up late at work, I was sometimes disoriented because I had trouble focusing and as an acting captain, that is not good, because I’m not looking out for just myself, I’ve got a crew sometimes to look after,” he said.

Eventually his supervisor noticed and asked if he needed help. Cunningham, reluctantly, accepted.

“I was scared what people would think, I was scared of appearing weak. I know that mental illness is not a sign of weakness but there’s still an old prejudice from when I was brought up that, you know, people who are crazy get locked up.”

READ MORE: 13 first responders, 13 suicides, 10 weeks

He spent two months in Homewood Health Centre – a treatment facility in Guelph, Ontario that specializes in mental illness and substance abuse treatment.

Thirteen Canadian first responders – firefighters, dispatchers, police officers, paramedics and prison staff – have killed themselves over the last 10 weeks.

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And as Global News’s coverage this week has shone a light on the toll mental illness takes, many more have gotten in touch in the hopes of telling their stories – many after keeping silent for years.

“During my time in treatment, I met a lot of first responders and military people and even people from all walks of life who are being treated for PTSD. And they all said the same thing: That asking for help is the hardest part,” Cunningham said.

READ MORE: Is there enough mental health support for first responders?

Cindy Armstrong

Cindy has been an EMS dispatcher in Toronto for approximately five years. She says dispatchers are sometimes the “forgotten” first responder because they aren’t on the scene themselves. But they’re the first point of contact an emergency.

“So whatever the responders see, we hear,” she said. “We visualize the scene, in order to be able to provide as much help as possible.”

Armstrong was diagnosed with PTSD three years ago after a series of stressful calls.

But one stands out in her memory.

She took a 911 call from a Toronto-area construction site after large machinery had fallen and trapped three people.

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One man was dead by the time crews arrived. But Armstrong was on the phone to hear his final screams.

“He did not die instantly. I took the call … I heard him screaming in the background. I heard his screaming stop,” she said. “That helplessness feeling, as well as hearing that scream stop, has affected me.”

Armstrong is on medication for her PTSD, seeing a psychiatrist and says she is able to control her symptoms.

But many of her colleagues struggle in silence, she said, afraid of the consequence of coming forward.

“Many of us will not come forward admitting we have PTSD.”

– With files from Laura Zilke

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