Taken from Caledon Enterprise Canada which is found HERE.
Ontario Advanced Care Paramedic Natalie Harris is a survivor.
After attending a call in 2012 where two nearly decapitated women lay dead, leaving Harris tasked with caring for the naked man lying next to them suffering from self-inflicted knife wounds – she was, needless to say, deeply disturbed.
But Harris, who served Peel Paramedics years prior to this call, says that it wasn’t until she had to testify for the incident two years later that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) surfaced, followed by a long road of mental health struggles, and eventually an attempt to take her own life.
Unfortunately, her story is not unique when it comes to first responders.
According to the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, Canada’s leading provider of peer-support, family assistance, and training for public safety and military personnel dealing with Operational Stress and PTSD, 39 first responders and 12 military personnel commit suicide in 2015.
So far in 2016, the Trust says that four first responders have already been lost to suicide across the country.
“It’s obviously a trend that we are not happy with,” said Vince Savoia, the founder of the Trust. “It raises a ton of concerns.”
Harris could not agree more, and feels as though it’s time for change.
“I’m lucky. I’m here, I survived,” she said. “But PTSD and suicide attempts are rampant in our service.”
After “multiple hospital stays, hiding behind stigma forever and trying to appear perfect,” she decided to share her story in hopes of helping other first responders suffering in silence.
Now, two years after starting her blog Paramedic Nat’s Mental Health Journey and championing the cause to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and specifically PTSD in first responders, she is kick-starting a network of peer support groups for people who experience extreme trauma in their positions.
Backed and supported by groups such as the Tema Conter Foundation, Wings of Change is a model made for peer support meetings to be run for peers, by peers, on a regular basis.
“Not just after a difficult call or something that needs to be debriefed,” she explained.
The initiative is open to all first responders, military members, communications officers and healthcare providers – professional or volunteer – in order for them to have access to anonymous, solution-based discussion and education regarding any occupational trauma.
While the contacts for Wings of Change may be provided via an employer, they are not involved in the facilitation.
Harris launched the program Monday (Feb. 1) and she has already had immense interest.
The launch also comes in perfect time with an announcement also made Monday (Feb. 1) by Ontario’s government for a new PTSD strategy for first responders.
The Province’s new prevention strategy has four major elements focused around items like increasing awareness, online tool kits with resources on PTSD, and grants to support evidence based research, but none of the elements tackle what is needed right now: immediate mental health support for first responders currently suffering from PTSD.
“I am a huge supporter for evidence based research, but in the mean time, there are first responders dying and for me, as a survivor of an overdose and suicide attempts – going online and clicking on a link about PTSD and how to cope is about one per cent of what I needed to recover,” Harris said.
“The main thing that we are lacking in Ontario is the legislation which says that if a first responder is diagnosed with PTSD – it is to be presumed that it comes from our work world.”
NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo has been lobbying for presumptive legislation for nearly seven years.
“The government is well aware of my bill and they’ve been promising to act,” she told The Enterprise. “Although we welcome any announcement on PTSD, the simple reality is the law has still not changed and workers are not covered under WSIB.”
Manitoba and Alberta already recognize PTSD as work-related for first responders, but at the moment in Ontario, WSIB requires proof as to where the illness stemmed from.
“What this means is that these people are having to recount traumatic events over and over for years, not getting coverage for the care that they need immediately and becoming re-traumatized in the process,” Harris continued. “We need this legislation now and once it is implemented, we might have people suffering who could participate in that research but at the moment it’s not really on their priority list, they need to pay their bills and feed their family while they wait for this support.”