Why a Fredericton first responder’s struggle with PTSD should alarm us

Written by Matt Mosher and Tracy Glynn on December 3, 2014

Jeff_Mack

Jeff Mack, a Fredericton firefighter who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), has brought awareness to the problem of PTSD in first responders. Photo courtesy of Jeff Mack.

Fredericton – Jeff Mack, a firefighter for 26 years, says one call a decade ago in Fredericton left him with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and a drinking problem.

“My PTSD was a result of cumulative traumatic calls with the 2005 fire being the last straw,” says Mack.

Mack and his partner responded to a dangerous structure fire in the winter of 2005. Mack was knocked semi-unconscious while fighting the fire. He was forced to leave his partner in the burning building to get help. The two survived but Mack says he stopped sleeping after that fire. He was angry all the time and lost interest in almost everything. He was afraid to go back to work and he developed a drinking problem.

Mack attended a debriefing session after the incident. One month after the fire, he sought counselling. Within a year, Mack was diagnosed with PTSD and chronic alcoholism. Three years after the fire that altered his life, he was told that if he continued drinking like he was, he would have three months to live. Mack’s story is featured on the A&E show, Intervention.

Glenn Sullivan, President of the Fredericton Fire Fighters Association, argues that the social stigma associated with PTSD that kept it a hidden problem is dissipating but more resources are needed to avoid and treat PTSD in New Brunswick.

Services in New Brunswick are not up to par with others across Canada. Workers in New Brunswick experiencing PTSD symptoms have a tougher time linking it to their work and accessing any support from bodies like WorkSafe NB, according to the union president. WorkSafe NB does support the cost of PTSD assessment and treatment.

“In some provinces, they have presumptive PTSD coverage for first responders. That’s not the case in New Brunswick,” says Sullivan. “The issue lies in the treatment facilities for substance abuse and the funding for it. The problem, I believe, is that there is widespread acknowledgement of PTSD and mental wellness, but when it comes to funding for a program to address substance abuse, that’s where it falls apart.”

Sullivan says there is a need for a holistic approach to wellness and early detection and treatment of PTSD symptoms. “WorkSafe NB needs to provide funding in the event that PTSD results in substance abuse. They need to streamline the process so that someone with PTSD isn’t further stressed with excessive paperwork and having to jump through hoops,” says Sullivan.

Support for prevention and treatment of PTSD for first responders cannot come fast enough for Sullivan. “Things seem to moving very slow given the numbers of first responders that have succumbed to PTSD by taking their own lives,” says Sullivan.

Twenty-three first responders across Canada–firefighters, paramedics, police officers, soldiers and corrections officers–committed suicide in a six month span from April to September of this year, according to Tema Conter Memorial Trust.

The Ontario-based foundation launched a suicide awareness campaign called “You Are Not Alone” in September. The foundation aims to provide first responder organizations with resources and peer support. The campaign has been successful in garnering nation- wide media attention on the suicide crisis and its links to stressful work environments and PTSD.

Too few resources and the city of Fredericton’s cuts to the fire service have contributed to stress in the workplace, according to Sullivan. “PTSD is cumulative in nature and organizational changes at the workplace have an impact on stress levels. I have seen this in very young firefighters who have really become frustrated in the decisions made at City Hall without truly realizing the impact on the safety.”

“It adds a great deal of stress knowing that you don’t have the resources to do your job effectively.  It’s one thing to cut back on personnel at city hall, but when you are dealing with people’s lives it’s entirely different.”

Although Sullivan admits that there has been a significant change towards the view of mental illness within fire departments during the last 18 years, he still believes there is much more improvement needed. “Organizational behaviour, in the context of psychology, is often ignored in the public sector. When all that is talked about is ‘leaning’ out the organization to find ‘efficiencies’- that can’t help an individual’s well-being.”

Mack has been in recovery since 2008 after receiving four months of treatment in B.C.

Sullivan admits that he would like to think that Mack’s story is an uncommon one with Fredericton firefighters but he knows of one Fredericton firefighter who recently retired with PTSD and another who has just filed for Workers’ Compensation. Many more have taken time off to deal with stress and other mental illnesses.

Matt Mosher is a social work student at St. Thomas University doing a placement at the NB Media Co-op. Tracy Glynn is an editor with the NB Media Co-op.

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