ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Cpl. Jamie MacWhirter has been through the nightmares and angry outbursts of post-traumatic stress disorder, and he has a message for those struggling alone.
“If you believe you have a problem, if your wife or spouse has said anything to you, it doesn’t hurt to go and talk to somebody.”
MacWhirter chronicled his 2006 deployment in Kandahar and subsequent troubles with PTSD in his memoir, A Soldier’s Tale: A Newfoundland Soldier in Afghanistan.
He’s now working on another book about his long journey back to better mental health.
On May 5, MacWhirter will speak in St. John’s to help launch a cross-Canada tour aimed at raising awareness about how soldiers, emergency workers, police, correctional officers and others are affected by PTSD.
The Heroes Are Human tour organized by the Tema Conter Memorial Trust in Toronto will include stops in 48 cities and towns. Two-hour community meetings will be free of charge for anyone wanting to learn more about how to cope with a still highly stigmatized condition.
MacWhirter said it has been especially hard to learn of recent suicides involving soldiers and veterans of the Afghanistan mission.
“People are afraid to come forward and admit that they need help,” he said in an interview. “Most soldiers, they’re taught to hide the pain. They’re taught to soldier on and continue work.
“It’s hard to change your thought pattern and say, ‘I need help.”’
MacWhirter, 38, said he has heard stories of soldiers whose military careers have stalled after admitting to such problems. But his own experience has been one of support and, over time, healing.
He first sought help through the military almost eight years ago when his symptoms began to escalate.
“I tried to deal with it myself. But my wife, God love her, she pretty much told me: ‘You need help.”’
MacWhirter said finding a counsellor in St. John’s who could help him put in perspective and let go of the most rattling memories of his time overseas has made the difference. He expects to finish his mental health treatment in June.
MacWhirter said he’ll likely deal with PTSD symptoms for the rest of his life but that he now understands what triggers to avoid and how to calm himself.
“I believe now I’m ready to carry on with my life and carry on my career.”
It’s a message of hope that Vince Savoia, founder and executive director of the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, wants to take across the country.
Savoia’s own battle with PTSD began as a 27-year-old paramedic in 1988 when he was called to a grisly murder scene in Toronto. Tema Conter, a 25-year-old woman, had been bound, raped, beaten and stabbed to death.
Savoia, now 52, said he felt profound sadness, guilt and other symptoms that would not be properly diagnosed as PTSD until almost 12 years later.
He quit emergency services in 1992 and was a financial planner for 18 years.
He now works full-time for the trust founded in Tema Conter’s memory.
“I think PTSD as a whole within our community is really, really misunderstood. It’s what we call the invisible injury.
“What most PTSD sufferers want is to go back prior to that trauma and be normal again,” he said.
“That’s really almost impossible to do because that traumatic event has happened and it has changed you to some degree.”
Savoia said the key is to know there is help available and that it’s okay to seek it.
Provincial governments should increase access to mental health services, he said.
Wait lists for psychologists are often months long, and appointments costing at least $150 an hour are too much for many people, he added.
MacWhirter and Savoia agree that non-judgmental guidance to find a focus or program that eases PTSD symptoms is crucial.
For Savoia, starting the trust in honour of the woman he could not help was a God-send, he said.
“It allowed me to take all that negative energy that I had and apply it to something that I perceive to be very positive.”