Police, fire and ambulance personnel face high PTSD rates

WINNIPEG — Alex Forrest clearly remembers what happened to a fellow firefighter who was traumatized by the deaths of two captains in a house fire.

WINNIPEG — Alex Forrest clearly remembers what happened to a fellow firefighter who was traumatized by the deaths of two captains in a house fire.

It was two months after the Winnipeg blaze in 2007 that killed Tom Nichols and Harold Lessard, and Forrest knew his colleague was having a hard time coping.

“I checked up on him and he had killed himself in a garage, and he was holding the pamphlet from the memorial,” Forrest, head of the Winnipeg firefighters union, recalled last week.

“Many of the firefighters are still suffering the effects of that fire.”

Forrest is one of many emergency responders across the country, including police officers and ambulance crews, who are fighting for better treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

He says the condition has been around a long time — he remembers early in his career 25 years ago when one firefighter committed suicide — but people are more willing to talk about the issue now.

There have been high-profile cases in recent weeks, including that of Ken Barker, a retired RCMP corporal and dog handler who took his own life.

His family told the Winnipeg Free Press that Barker had struggled with PTSD after seeing many horrific crimes over the years, including the 2008 beheading of Tim McLean on a Greyhound bus.

Vince Savoia is a former paramedic and advocate who set up the Tema Conter Memorial Trust Fund in honour of a young woman killed in Toronto in 1988. He said there have been at least 15 suicides by first responders across Canada since April 28. The total is based on media reports and information given directly to his organization, which embarked on a cross-country tour this year to raise awareness of PTSD. The number surprised even him.

“I’m really hoping this is just a blip …. because I just can’t see this continuing,” Savoia said from his organization’s Toronto headquarters.

While suicide is the most extreme outcome of PTSD, both Savoia and Forrest say the condition can manifest itself in many different ways — depression, substance abuse, divorce or an inability to work.

A 2012 study by psychiatric researchers in Brazil estimated that, worldwide, 10 per cent of emergency responders suffer from PTSD. That number was comparable to the rate among United States military personnel who had served in Iraq. It was much higher than rates among the general population of the countries that were studied — those rates varied between one per cent and 3.5 per cent.

In Canada, there is a growing movement to try to treat PTSD in emergency responders. British Columbia and Alberta have recently changed worker compensation laws to make PTSD a presumptive condition. That means emergency responders suffering from the disorder will be presumed to have it as a direct result of their jobs, making it easier to qualify for compensation and treatment.

The Ontario government has reintroduced a similar bill in the legislature and Manitoba appears ready to follow suit.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced updated health measures Monday which are now in place for retail, hotels and community halls, performance groups, and youth sports as part of Step 2 of Alberta’s reopening plan. (File photo by Government of Alberta)
COVID restrictions for retail, sports and performers further eased

Occupancy in stores and malls boosted to 25 per cent from 15 per cent

The City of Red Deer sits at 249 active cases of the virus, after hitting a peak of 565 active cases on Feb. 22. (Black Press file image)
Active COVID cases in Red Deer continue to decline

249 cases in Red Deer, down from 565 peak on Feb. 22

(File photo)
Five Olds College students semi-finalists in marketing pitch competition

Winner of Second Annual UFA Student Pitch Competition to be announced April 13

Nordegg residents, including retired fisheries biologist Vance Buchwald, are concerned this kind of coal mining could start up in the wilderness area. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mead Gruver, File).
Biologist urges Clearwater County to take a stand against Nordegg coal mining

Vance Buchwald said there’s no future in coal, the county should back eco-tourism

Quentin Lee Strawberry Photo from RCMP
Updated: Bleeding man came to door frantically calling for 911 help, neighbour testifies in murder trial

Quentin Strawberry on trial for second-degree murder accused of killing Joseph Gallant in 2019

Ben King scores for the Red Deer Rebels during the third period of a Western Hockey League game against the Calgary Hitmen at the Westerner Park Centrium Saturday. (Photo by Rob Wallator/Red Deer Rebels)
Rebels complete comeback to pick up first win of season

Rebels 3 Hitmen 2 (OT) The Red Deer Rebels were able to… Continue reading

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland holds a media availability in Ottawa on November 23, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Liberals told to think beyond child care in work to craft ‘shecession’ recovery plan

Liberals told to think beyond child care in work to craft ‘shecession’ recovery plan

A helicopter passes over excavation equipment at the Mary River exploration camp, the site of a proposed expansion to an iron mine on northern Baffin Island, on August 17, 2006. The board of the organization that represents Inuit in Nunavut's Baffin Island region says it does not support the proposed expansionnear Pond Inlet. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Vinne Karetak
Inuit group’s board says no to proposed expansion of Nunavut iron ore mine

Inuit group’s board says no to proposed expansion of Nunavut iron ore mine

A street sign along Bay Street in Toronto's financial district is shown on Tuesday, January 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Royal Bank replaces Shopify as most valuable company as TSX hits intraday high

Royal Bank replaces Shopify as most valuable company as TSX hits intraday high

Rail cars wait for pickup in Winnipeg, Sunday, March 23, 2014. The fierce debate over cross-border pipelines is putting more Canadian oil and gas on trains destined for the United States — a country experts fear is ill-equipped for the potential consequences. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
As debate rages over cross-border pipelines, U.S. analysts brace for more oil by rail

As debate rages over cross-border pipelines, U.S. analysts brace for more oil by rail

As spring nears, houseplants feel it too and can get unruly

As spring nears, houseplants feel it too and can get unruly

A couple walks past a vandalized mural depicting world's first woman cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova in Madrid, Spain, Monday, March 8, 2021. At least two street murals celebrating accomplished women in politics, arts and science have appeared covered in black paint over the weekend. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Defying pandemic, feminists in Spain decry far-right attacks

Defying pandemic, feminists in Spain decry far-right attacks

Demonstrators march through downtown Minneapolis following protests near the Hennepin County Government Center, Monday, March 8, 2021, in Minneapolis where the trial for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin began with jury selection. Chauvin is charged with murder in the death of George Floyd during an arrest last May in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Fiery chants for justice from marchers at Chauvin trial

Fiery chants for justice from marchers at Chauvin trial

This image provided by The Alexandria (Va.) Sheriff's Office shows Jacob Chansley. A judge ordered corrections authorities to provide organic food to the Arizona man who is accused of participating in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol while sporting face paint, no shirt and a furry hat with horns. He was moved from the Washington jail to the Virginia facility. (Alexandria Sheriff's Office via AP)
Arizona man who wore horns in Capitol riot to remain jailed

Arizona man who wore horns in Capitol riot to remain jailed

Most Read