They enforce the law, they rescue people from emergencies, but they didn’t sign up to die because of it.
So far in 2015, there have been 28 first responder suicides in Canada — that’s including police, fire and EMS personnel.
Rick Robson, president of the London Police Association, says that number is “shocking,” but he’s quick to add it’s even gloomier because the issue isn’t as prevalent as it should be.
“If that was any other profession, 28 doctors and nurses had committed suicide in 2015, I would think it would have grabbed some kind of attention to the point where somebody would say this is an issue. But it just does not seem to be getting the traction. It’s frustrating to meet those barriers.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is to blame for at least some of these deaths. It’s an affliction the Canadian Mental Health Association says 1-in-10 people will suffer.
In his role with the association, Robson says it is a situation he deals with probably “six to 12 times a year, in one fashion or another.”
PTSD impacts different people in different ways, but Robson, a 21-year veteran (13 years in London), said he has been exposed to “my fair share of ugliness” while on the job.
And while he doesn’t consider himself a stressed person, and has a strong home life to keep him grounded, he encourages those who need help to reach out.
“First and foremost, the best we can understand is you need treatment. We strongly encourage members to prioritize that,” Robson said. “That being said, is it a difficult decision to make? Is it difficult to put yourself out there? Absolutely.”
Ruth Lanius, a professor of psychiatry and director of the PTSD research unit at Western University, has been working in this area for close to 20 years.
Lanius said the core issue of PTSD is that a traumatic memory is not a memory of the past, but a memory of the present — a memory that is not remembered, but instead is relived.
There are some warning signs for PTSD: irritability, a lack of focus, an inability to connect to loved ones, substance abuse and a general lack of desire to participate in life are just a few of the indicators.
Once the situation is identified, Lanius said there are techniques that can be learned to help people cope in a healthier way.
But before that can happen, as Matt Davis well knows, first responders still need to come forward and ask for help.
That’s why Davis — a London firefighter for nine years and a military firefighter for three-and-a-half years before that — committed to helping people understand the value of getting help.
Davis, with assistance from Fanshawe College, helped produce a video called Beyond the Call.
The video represents a vision Davis said he had to help educate not only firefighters, but also all those in emergency services, about the importance of seeking help.
Achieving that goal, Davis admits, will take a change in attitude and is why the Beyond the Call video features those who have truly experienced difficult situations and come back from them.
The message, he hopes, is that first responders learn asking for help is a sign of inner strength rather that weakness.
“If you are struggling, start the conversation. Even if it’s only a friend or family member, just talk to somebody. There are people in similar circumstances; you aren’t alone,” Davis said. “I have been there where you know you’re messed up, you just don’t know why, you just feel awful. So hopefully now, if I see guys who are struggling, maybe I will be able to keep a closer eye on folks and be able to start the conversation for them.”