Saanich firefighter Tom McConnell is one of 15 members of the fire department who trained in the Resilient Minds mental health program designed to support first responders in areas of psychological trauma and workplace stress. Travis Paterson/News Staff

Saanich firefighters embrace reality of PTSD

New mental health program designed to recognize trauma, minimize post-traumatic stress disorder

There’s a culture shift taking place in the Saanich fire halls.

With a new wave of mental health awareness, which accepts how damaging trauma can be on people over the long term, there is a new program to help firefighters and other first responders to deal with the traumatic experiences right away.

“We see things other people don’t want to see,” said Tom McConnell of the Saanich Firefighters Association.

As first responders, it’s accepted that firefighters will be called to the most disturbing scenes and experience some of the worst of human tragedy. If not properly dealt with, research shows the trauma can quickly burden a firefighter’s mental health, and often leads to marital problems and, in some cases, suicide.

Which is why Saanich is the latest fire department to undertake the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Resilient Minds training. Fifteen members enrolled in the Resilient Minds program last week. Those 15 will soon turn around and train up to 20 more members, until the Saanich Fire Department is fully on board with the program.

In recent years, awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become a growing concern, which is why the Saanich Fire Department is taking a proactive approach to arm our members with important skills, said Saanich Fire Chief Michael Burgess.

“It gives us the ability to recognize if someone is struggling and not behaving as their normal selves so we can get them the help they need,” said McConnell, who’s the Saanich Fire peer-to-peer mental health co-ordinator and co-ordinator of Saanich Fire’s Critical Incident Stress Management Team. “We’re trying to deal with it properly instead of masking and pretending you didn’t see it.”

McConnell, like all firefighters, has responded to some horrific and tragic incidents. But when he started there were few, if any, mechanisms for dealing with the trauma that firefighters and first responders endured. The Resilient Minds course, led here by Steve Fraser from Vancouver Fire and Saeri Roots from CMHA, helps firefighters recognize the signs of mental illness, or trauma, so they can get the support they need as quickly as possible. This comes just a decade or two from a time when all you could do was share your story with someone else in the department who would one-up you with something similar, but worse, to make you feel heard, McConnell said.

“We are ending the stigma behind the ‘suck it up’ attitude, and not just dealing with things through dark humour, but by creating a safe environment,” McConnell said. “At the start of my career I saw things and this piqued my interest to make sure everyone knows it’s normal [to be affected by it].”

The CMHA Resilient Minds course is a comprehensive four-module prevention program designed specifically for first responders to support them in areas of psychological trauma and workplace stress.

“Studies are showing that nearly all firefighters want to deal with it through their peers initially,” McConnell said. “This also gives us the ability, when we’re going on calls, to deal with members of the public who are enduring traumatic stress.”

McConnell added that while PTSD is the big word of the day, there’s different types of trauma.

“It can be cumulative, people could go to 500 calls but it’s call No. 501 that sets you off and you don’t know why after you dealt with the previous [issues],” McConnell said. “Our team helps firefighters debrief from a specific incident, ultimately allowing them to return to their daily routines with less likelihood of developing PTSD.”