November 26, 2017 9:00 am
Updated: November 26, 2017 9:01 am

PTSD, suicide and first responders — A lot of talk, and not much progress

With increased awareness of first responders who battle PTSD, are things actually getting better?

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Natalie Harris still misses being a paramedic.

She craves the gratification that comes from saving a life. The connection formed by holding a patient’s hand at the back of an ambulance as sirens sound off.

The Barrie, Ont. woman hasn’t worked as a paramedic in more than a year — since she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I miss it still every single day. I miss putting on my uniform,” she told Global News.

Natalie Harris worked as a paramedic for 13 years.

Supplied Natalie Harris

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Harris was a paramedic for 13 years, but after handling the case of a double-murder in 2012 and its resulting court case, something changed. Her loved ones noticed the symptoms long before she did. She explains the mental injury eventually led to a drug overdose.

“I never thought that this would happen to me. It turned into an overdose before I realized how sick that I was.”

Part of it was denial. She says she didn’t want to face the reality that she may never be a paramedic again — a job she loved.

“Being able to be that person who helps someone in their time of emergency is a gift that you really can’t understand unless you do it.”

Natalie Harris with two coworkers.

Supplied Natalie Harris

Now, Harris spreads awareness about first responders who live with PTSD on her blog, “Paramedic Nat’s Mental Health Journey.” She also wrote a book called Save-My-Life School: A first responder’s mental health journey.

It’s a cause close to Harris’s heart, and one that deserves all the attention it can get.

In 2017 so far, advocacy organization The Tema Conter Memorial Trust (TEMA) estimates 52 first responders have committed suicide in Canada. A total of 68 took their own lives last year. The problem is most pronounced in corrections officers and paramedics, which account for more than 50 per cent of first responder PTSD cases

In November, the death of 47-year-old Calgary fire captain Barry Dawson sparked renewed urgency to address the issue. But advocates have raised concerns about how much is really being done.

READ MORE: Military mental health plan recognizes special forces needs

Harris has also been a vocal supporter of Bill C-211, a federal private member’s bill by Conservative MP Todd Doherty, which aims to form a national strategy around PTSD.

The bill, titled ‘Federal Framework on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Act,’ passed in the House of Commons with support from all political parties.

But more than 160 days later, Doherty says he’s frustrated that Senate hasn’t addressed it. Each day it sits unhandled, the B.C. MP tells Global News, more lives are at risk.

WATCH: PTSD among first responders

“It’s almost every other day, it seems, that we’re getting another message a firefighter, police officer, or veteran has committed suicide. It’s devastating.”

Doherty says he believes the bill will ultimately help save lives.

“This is a very real issue, and one that we can beat, but we have to have a co-ordinated effort on it. And the first step is getting Bill C-211.”

READ MORE: ‘It almost destroyed us’ — Moncton Mountie speaks out about PTSD

In an email response to Global News, Public Safety Canada explained it is conducting research and has held round-table discussions on the issue.

“Public Safety Canada (PS) continues to work closely with a broad stakeholder community, including all levels of government, public safety stakeholders (e.g. associations of first responders) academia, mental health professionals, and not-for-profit organizations, to develop a co-ordinated action plan on post-traumatic stress injuries (PTSI) in support of public safety officers,” the email read.

TEMA’s founder and executive director, Vince Savoia, says the Doherty’s bill is just one step in the right direction.

Savoia, a former paramedic who battled with PTSD himself, says the bill is more about awareness and research, and less so about treatment options.

“The bill was designed to basically bring attention to post-traumatic stress disorder, and to basically invoke or call for more research, more evidence-based type research and training, and treatment,” he said.

WATCH: Living with PTSD — A soldier’s story

Savoia wants politicians to focus on presumptive disability legislation, which several provinces still don’t have.

Presumptive disability removes the burden of proof from a first responder struggling with PTSD.

“It is automatically assumed that the post-traumatic stress disorder was in direct relation to the work they did. Prior to presumptive disability, they needed to pinpoint a certain incident that would have caused PTSD.”

Savoia explains that the assumption removes one lengthy and emotionally gruelling step for those seeking help.

But presumptive disability is one aspect of making help more readily available.

WATCH: Edmonton service dog to assist first responder with PTSD

Savoia adds that while seeking help, many first responders face financial challenges.

And stigma is another monster.

Opening up the conversation surrounding mental health and first responders is a challenge that Kevin Davison is tackling through song.

The Kentville, N.S.-based paramedic and firefighter’s song When Those Sirens Are Gone, details the challenge of letting go of on-the-job traumas.

The song, which Davison penned himself, features powerful lyrics such as: “You can’t unsee the things you’ve seen. It keeps going on, when those sirens are gone.”

Kevin Davison (left) with a coworker.

Supplied Kevin Davison

Davison, who has worked as a first responder for 23 years, explains that he’s never been diagnosed with PTSD. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t experienced its wrath.

“Over half my life, I’ve been going to car accidents, and fires, and having to pronounce people [dead] at scenes,” he said.

“I don’t think anybody really goes unscathed when it comes to working as a first responder.”

He’s battled with sleepless nights, nightmares, and increased anxiety.

While the song was something Davison wrote for himself, it now has a greater purpose.

“I’m seeing more and more people message me and telling me they don’t feel alone because of the video.”

He says it’s helped boost the conversation. But talk is just that — talk.

Kevin Davison penned a song about the difficulties of being a first responder.

Supplied Kevin Davison

“Talking is a great thing to do, but there needs to be action,” he said. “I really feel the federal government needs to step up.

“We’re still seeing suicides with our first responders. If we’re still seeing suicides, then there’s still an issue.”

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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