The First Cause definition of First Responders includes police officers, firefighters, ambulance paramedics, front-line medical staff, sheriffs, border services agents, and military service members who respond to all manner of emergencies. As the name suggests, they are first on scene and exist to protect and serve our society.
While many of us will rarely, or perhaps never, interact with emergency services agencies, the occasions those interactions do occur clearly demonstrate each member’s dedication, courage and selflessness when it comes to performing their duties.
Due to the nature of their job, First Responders are exposed to countless traumatic incidents during their careers, and as a result, can suffer from a wide range of mental health issues, specifically referred to as Occupational Stress Injuries (OSI).
Studies have shown that almost 87% of First Responders reported having post-traumatic stress reactions throughout the course of their career. These reactions include (but are not limited to) anxiety, depression, PTSD, and self-medicating behaviors. These reactions are often experienced at more than twice the rate of the average population.
Despite these numbers, there currently aren’t any First Responder-specific treatment programs in Western Canada, which First Cause hopes to change. In the meantime, those in need of help sometimes turn to a support network made up of fellow First Responders, family and close friends; other times help is neither sought nor received.
While having a support network is critical to all people, it is particularly the case for First Responders, given their unique experiences. It is the people closest to the affected individual(s) who are able to provide the tailored and appropriate support in the most timely way. However, close friends and family members may not always be the best, or even a desired, option, for First Responders in need. Nils Gorseth, Vancouver Firefighter, explains further.
“I’ve experienced many traumatic incidents in my career, and have sometimes leaned on First Responder friends and colleagues, and even close family members. However, there is always a level of reticence to say what I really feel or think, in case others might view it as weakness, or even as a deficiency of some sort. In terms of my family, there’s even more of a barrier to being 100% honest about my feelings, because I don’t want to project my experiences onto my family members.”
“I remember a story a friend of mine told me that I’ll never forget – it haunts me, even though I wasn’t there. I won’t go into detail, but it involves a child’s death, a mother’s grief, and my friend’s very visceral experience with both, he having a family of his own. If a story like that can affect me, a First Responder, in that way, how might it affect my closest loved ones? How can I project that onto them if I can choose not to? The answer is that I can’t do that in good conscience.”
This leaves us with the need for a tailored, confidential, and widely accessible awareness and treatment program that can be accessed by any First Responder, at any time of day, wherever they might be. It is important for this service to be private and for First Responders to feel safe in accessing the program and help – something that is currently extremely difficult for First Responders.
Finally, it is important that, as a community, we extinguish the stigma surrounding “Mental Illness” – the notion that it is a weakness or a deficiency. Nils notes, “My personal opinion is that the term “illness” should be deleted altogether, and replaced with “injury”. Injuries heal, and are not the fault of the First Responder, or an inherent deficiency.”
First Cause Ride’s goals are to raise the awareness around First Responder Mental Health, to help eradicate the negative stigma surrounding mental illness, and to provide a universally available Mental Health Program for First Responders in need. With the help of the public, peers, and our valued partners, we think this is achievable.
ePACT looks forward to supporting this incredible cause on August 20th, with the First Cause Ride and Fundraiser!
By Michelle Chopin, Volunteer Marketing & Communications, Vancouver Firefighter Charities
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