In Harm’s Way: The PTSD crisis among Canada’s first responders
WATCH ABOVE: They fight crime, battle fires and rush toward danger when everyone else is running away— but now they’re calling for help.
When Sergeant Jag Soin talks about the horrible things he’s seen during his 20-plus years with the RCMP, he goes to a dark place.
“I had never realized how difficult it would be,” he says. “People dying in your arms, you know. People burnt alive.”
Sgt. Soin has been suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder for 13 years.
Looking back he can pinpoint when it started; an incident in 2001 when he was posted to a small two-person detachment in Northern Labrador. A domestic disturbance quickly exploded in violence. Soin and his partner were doused with gas and set on fire. Struggling to find their way out of a house engulfed in flames, choking on smoke, and burning alive, Soin believed he was about to die.
WATCH BELOW: An extended interview with Sgt. Jag Soin
“The last thought that came through my mind, I thought this is it. I am never going to see my son again.”
Soin and his partner managed to get out. The memory of what he saw next will be with him forever.
“My face was burning, I could hardly breathe. And then I see the suspect approaching me and…..it was like….watching a zombie. It was all black, charred….there’s a trail of blood behind him, his hands at his side, and he was still walking.”
“Those sounds and sights… they never leave you,” he says. “There comes a point when you fracture.”
Over the next 13 years, Soin would struggle with constant flashbacks, nightmares, self-medicating with alcohol, and for years, he kept it quiet. The RCMP was not a place that encouraged officers to admit they needed help.
Assistant RCMP Commissioner Gilles Moreau admits the RCMP has a problem.
“Mental illness is something that was, and is still, to this day, an issue in the organization,” he says.
In April, The RCMP unveiled a new five year strategy to combat the stigma that stops officers from seeking the help they need. Moreau says the number one priority is talking about it, and that things are changing.
WATCH BELOW: An extended interview with Romeo Dallaire. Recently, as a member of Canada’s senate, Dallaire has been instrumental in reforming how the army deals with PTSD. But says the RCMP was resistant to change.
But critics like former RCMP member Jeff Morley say there’s not much “new” in the RCMP’s new strategy. Morley retired from the RCMP in June of last year and now, as a psychologist, treats first responders suffering from PTSD.
He says there is very little research available on the rates of PTSD in the force, so the RCMP doesn’t even know how many of its members have it, or if its programs are working.
RELATED: LIVE CHAT: First Responders and PTSD
“I think the RCMP still sticks its head in the sand by not doing epidemiological research to determine what the rates of mental health issues are in its ranks,” he says.
“Are programs working? Are they effective? Do they need to be designing and offering and testing programs for early intervention for treatment, so that we can develop best practices? And I see none of that in the current strategy.”
READ MORE: BLOG: PTSD – The silent killer
Moreau admits the organization doesn’t know how many of its members have PTSD, and there are currently no plans to research that question, despite the fact that 32 active and retired members of the RCMP have committed suicide in the last eight years – some, with documented links to PTSD, others for reasons unclear.
And it’s not only RCMP members who are taking their own lives. Police, firefighters, paramedics and correctional officers are among the sad ranks of at least 30 Canadian first responders who have committed suicide since the end of April.
WATCH BELOW: Jeff Balch is a firefighter in Barrie, Ontario, who suffers from PTSD. For him, the trauma started 26 years ago when he was in the military as a bomb disposal expert.
Paramedic Rob Ichelson has considered it. The Vaughan, Ontario resident says he struggled with trauma from responding to mass shootings and countless other horrific calls, and was ready to end his life.
“It got to the point in early January that I tucked my son in, and I said goodbye…I was gonna end my life because I couldn’t take the sounds and the smells and I didn’t know what was happening.”
Like many others, Ichelson struggled with feelings of isolation and shame, and says there was no help, and no support from his employer. He has been away from work for months on several occasions to seek psychiatric help.
Ichelson has had difficulty getting covered by Ontario’s workplace insurance board, WSIB. Now, his benefits are running out, and his family is close to bankruptcy.
WATCH BELOW: An extended interview with Rob Ichelson
Even though PTSD is a recognized mental health disorder, Alberta is the only province where workplace insurance coverage is presumptive, meaning a diagnosis of PTSD is sufficient to accept a claim.
Morley says it’s time for every Canadian province to recognize PTSD as an occupational hazard.
“We know the work has risk and that it takes a toll. So when a first responder comes forward, overcomes their own stigma and fear to say ‘help’… I think we need to presume that it’s legit.”
“It affects us, and it destroys us,” says Ichelson. “These are the people there to protect you and they won’t be there to protect you… we need help to help you. Help us.”
16×9’s “In Harm’s Way” airs this Saturday at 7pm.
Join Sgt. Soin, Dr. Morley and other guests for a live blog next Monday, February 2nd.
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