Community advocates, health-care professionals and government officials are gathering this week for the Workplace Mental Health and PTSD Conference, a first of its kind in Nova Scotia.
“For too long mental-health injuries haven’t been discussed, or even acknowledged, in our homes, our communities, and our workplaces,” said NS Labour and Advanced Education Minister Kelly Regan in a news release.
The goal of the conference was to bring together experts at both the local and national level to discuss mental health injuries, specifically post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“For some workers, including first responders, trauma is a workplace hazard,” said Stuart MacLean, CEO of the Workers’ Compensation Board Nova Scotia.
“Awareness is so important. People need to know about work-related PTSD and the support available to people whose work affects them in this way.”
The event kicked off Monday morning with a series of speakers. John Garth MacDonald has been a paramedic for 26 years. During his career, MacDonald says he’s responded to hundreds of disturbing calls dealing with everything from fatal motor vehicle accidents to suicides.
In December of 2010, MacDonald was diagnosed with PTSD following a traumatic call involving a new mother and a six-day old baby. It was an experience MacDonald shared with the conference.
“Sometimes it’s not always what you see but what you hear,” he said. “And what I heard was ‘John Garth please help my daughter and please save my wife.'”
Part of the four-day conference will focus on mental-health training for emergency responders, psychosocial first aid training and suicide intervention training.
According to statisitics from the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, 51 first responders and 17 military personnel died by suicide across the country in 2015.
“It gets tied up with a loss of identity,” Dr. John Whelan, a Halifax psychologist, author and expert in post-traumatic stress disorder, said of why some first responders take their own lives.
“It gets tied up with things they can’t resolve. It gets tied up with the feeling that they didn’t do enough, they did the wrong thing and can’t come to terms with that and can’t talk about it in a way that they don’t feel ashamed.”
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Experts say taking care of one’s mental health is the same as taking care of your physical health, especially for first responders.
“During my career, I was led to believe that to deal with these traumatic events you were to suck it up and go back to work,” said MacDonald. “You were never to show any type of emotion, weakness, cry in front of your peers and for sure not ask for help.”
After two years of therapy, MacDonald was able to return to work as a paramedic. He’s now sharing his story of living with PTSD as a way to help others.
“The biggest problem is peer pressure and the stigma that’s associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. If we can break down those barriers and let people know that it’s not a sign of weakness, it’s actually a sign of courage and strength to reach out and ask for help and to accept help when offered,” said MacDonald.
As for how to move forward, Whelan says it’s about education.
“A lot of our efforts I think have to be about teaching people to be human, without being caught up in being tough all the time because I think people can be too tough.”