Thursday, 10 May 2018 10:38

Fire chief provides an inside view of PTSD at fundraising luncheon

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Fire chief provides an inside view of PTSD at fundraising luncheon Matthew Liebenberg/Prairie Post

Swift Current Fire Chief Denis Pilon presented a powerful message about the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and operational stress injuries (OSI) on first responders.


He was the guest speaker at the 14th annual Mayor’s Luncheon hosted by the Swift Current branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) at the Living Sky Casino event centre, May 2.
He has been in the fire service for 35 years and he therefore provided an insider’s view of the challenges being faced by first responders who cannot forget what they have witnessed during various emergency calls.
“It's the stuff that we've seen,” he said afterwards. “Like I mentioned, some of the car scenes, the bodies, dismemberments and stuff that you see. You can't erase the vision. … What does happen is that you just can't get that vision out of your mind and it haunts you and haunts you until finally you can't take it anymore and without proper help, then that's why we get the 246 people that have committed suicide in the past five years.”
This was the first time during his career that Pilon spoke publicly about some of his experiences at emergency scenes.
“I've talked to my family about it and they know what I've been through,” he said. “My wife and my kids have seen me walk away from them and spend hours away, and I've talked about the incidents afterwards, but this is the first time I've really come out in public and talked about some of the bad ones I've been to.”
He has not been diagnosed with PTSD and he has been able to cope with the various images and memories from different encounters during his career.
“I've coped with it by addressing the individual instances and saying I didn't cause this, I'm here to clean it up, and when I'm done with it I put it in the back of my mind and I lock it away, but I don't forget it,” he said. “It's still there and there's little triggers that will bring it back, like the crosses on the side of the road. There's some places I just can't drive without getting that flash back, a real bad one. So I tend to lock it away, and I've learnt to do that over the years, but some people aren't that lucky. Some people don't get the help and need help and they end up having problems for a long time.”
He did not find it difficult to speak in public about his experiences, because it does not haunt him anymore and he also considered it an important opportunity to help people to gain a better understanding of PTSD and OSI.
“One of the things that we've learned in the past is that the best therapy is to openly talk about it and get it out and be aware of it,” he said. “We encourage that in the fire hall. So if we have a bad incident, the guys will talk around the table a lot. They talk within their tight group, but don't necessarily go public with it. This is an opportunity to spread this out and to let people know exactly what we're going through as first responders.”
There have been improvements to the supports provided to first responders, but he feels the approach is still too reactive. For example, there is a provincial critical incidence stress management (CISM) team that will be deployed after incidents such as the recent Humboldt Broncos bus crash to give support to first responders.
He is excited about the new Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR) program that is now being made available to first responders.
“It's probably going to be a year or two before it's fully rolled out and we have an adequate number of instructors to get it out to people,” he noted.
The aim of this program is to prepare first responders to deal with their feelings after a traumatic experience.
“What are you going to feel like, what are those feelings, what are those thoughts going through your mind, those types of things,” he explained. “So you learn about that before it happens and then you start to recognize that you may have problems.”
Jacqui Williams, the executive director of the CMHA Swift Current branch, noted that Pilon’s presentation was very timely. The theme of this year’s CMHA Mental Health Week during May 7-13 is Get Loud.
“Get Loud is about people like Denis speaking about their actual own personal truth, taking away that stigma,” she said.
While one in five people in Canada will experience a mental health problem or illness in any given year, it is also necessary to recognize that mental health is important to everyone.
“Everyone has mental health, just like you have physical health,” she said. “We all go through different struggles with our mental health. Sometimes it becomes an illness, sometimes it's just in the immediate, but it's very normal to have struggles when it comes to dealing with coping, and we need people to recognize that and we need people to acknowledge that it happens to successful people, it happens to everyone.”
The Mayor’s Luncheon is an important fundraising event for the CMHA in Swift Current and it also helps to raise the awareness about mental health in the community.
“Speaking about mental health issues will help reduce the stigma and it's important that we get that stigma reduced,” she said. “So when you have an event like this, it raises the awareness a little more, it normalizes it a little more, it makes it OK to not be perfect every day.”

Read 342 times Last modified on Friday, 11 May 2018 09:38
Matthew Liebenberg

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