‘A lot of people out there are suffering’: First responders speak about PTSD

Click to play video: '‘A lot of people out there are suffering in silence,” First responders speak out about PTSD' ‘A lot of people out there are suffering in silence,” First responders speak out about PTSD
From the double fatal train accident last week that claimed the lives of two teenage girls to the death of a 4-year-old boy this week, there have been a series of tragic incidents in our region. Traumatic events like these touch each of us in some way but those on the front lines are hit particularly hard. Global's Natasha Pace looks at how first responders are affected by tragedy – Jun 17, 2016

Whether it be police, firefighters, paramedics or search and rescue personnel, first responders are present at some of the most unimaginable events.

It’s a job that often takes a toll on their mental health.

READ MORE: In Harm’s Way: The PTSD crisis among Canada’s first responders

“In that line of work, any day on the job, you can run into something that could actually change your whole life,” said Colleen Fraser, Mental Health Foundation.

“You could witness something and it causes what we call a mental health injury so PTSD can occur completely unexpected.”

It’s estimated about three per cent of the population has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, but that number skyrockets to 30 per cent for first responders.

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READ MORE: 6 months, 23 first responder suicides – what are we doing to help?

Living with PTSD is something that former Halifax Regional Police officer Kevin Johnson knows all too well.

“It’s very real. It’s very real everyday for me. It’s not something that’s just a one and it’s not there. It’s constant,” Johnson said.

Johnson suffered permanent physical injuries and being diagnosed with PTSD following a wildfire in Herring Cove, N.S. in 2009.

During that fire, Johnson saved the lives of eight people and a number of animals. He was just matched with a PTSD service dog named Maggie.

“Hyper vigilance is a big thing for first responders with PTSD — meaning that we don’t like people in our space or behind us, with PTSD it goes out of sort. With Maggie, Maggie will go behind me and put pressure against my legs so that I know there’s someone there,” Johnson told Global News.

“There’s an expression police use, watching your six, that your partner uses for when your working with somebody. Maggie is now my partner and she’s watches my back,” he said.

Being paired with Maggied was made possible for Johnson by the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia and Paws Fur Thought.

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Sean Conohan is a former paramedic and now a volunteer firefighter. He recently started his own podcast to discuss the issue of PTSD, something he calls an epidemic among first responders.

“Every time we go to work or answer our pager, we’re going to walk into destruction of property, violence, illness, injury or death. Or any combination of those things. That’s what we do, it’s our job,” said Conohan.

READ MORE: Volunteer firefighter fights back against PTSD with podcast

Both Johnson and Conohan agree that first responders need to make their mental health a priority.

“You need to be really careful to do a lot of self maintenance, which we generally are not good at doing because we are there to help other people, not ourselves,” Conohan said.

“I think it’s one of the worst things people can do is deny it and not admit that it’s there. I think it’s more common than we realize and a lot of people out there are suffering in silence,” added Johnson.

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