PTSD — time to talk about it … and lis­ten

The Western Star - - Editorial - Rus­sell Wanger­sky East­ern Pas­sages Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s col­umn ap­pears in 35 SaltWire news­pa­pers and web­sites in At­lantic Canada. He can be reached at rwanger@ thetele­gram.com — Twit­ter: @wanger­sky.

In a crowd, you will see me with my back to the wall.

Be­cause that is the only way I feel safe, the only way I can let go and ac­tu­ally lis­ten to what’s go­ing on around me.

I know it — I un­der­stand it, to a point. It doesn’t get bet­ter. At this point, it’s not go­ing to. It’s one of a bunch of lit­tle things I’ve learned to give in to.

But I’m lucky. My demons — from six years or so of ac­ci­dent res­cue as a vol­un­teer fire­fighter — are rel­a­tively small and painfully fa­mil­iar at this point.

The same can’t be said for other emer­gency ser­vices work­ers.

This week, an RCMP of­fi­cer in New­found­land took his own life. Many of us in the NL me­dia have dealt with Cpl. Trevor O’Keefe over the years, and, on the out­side, he had al­ways been ap­proach­able, like­able and funny. He was al­ways pro­fes­sional.

His obit­u­ary starts out, “Passed away on September 11, 2017 af­ter a coura­geous bat­tle with PTSD…” There are sug­ges­tions that he’s the sec­ond RCMP of­fi­cer to have com­mit­ted sui­cide in the prov­ince this year, a trou­bling statis­tic.

I think it’s brave of O’Keefe’s fam­ily to talk about post-trau­matic stress disor­der up front, to make it clear that Cpl. O’Keefe was deal­ing with a kind of se­ri­ous is­sue that many po­lice of­fi­cers and other first re­spon­ders are deal­ing with, many of them in si­lence, and, un­for­tu­nately, with strong feel­ings of em­bar­rass­ment.

Some groups sug­gest that as many as 50 first re­spon­ders across the coun­try have taken their own lives so far this year, and PTSD crops up reg­u­larly in that dis­cus­sion.

Over the years, sev­eral peo­ple I’ve known in the emer­gency ser­vices have com­mit­ted sui­cide. Sev­eral oth­ers — in­clud­ing some of my he­roes when I was a young fire­fighter — have de­vel­oped de­bil­i­tat­ing is­sues with drugs and al­co­hol. Many are peo­ple who would never let on that they were hav­ing trou­ble, some of them happy-go-lucky jokesters, oth­ers who were the epit­ome of pro­fes­sion­al­ism.

It doesn’t mat­ter. What’s on the out­side doesn’t re­flect what’s go­ing on in­side.

Men­tal is­sues are as much an old in­jury as a crushed disc or a frozen shoul­der — like any phys­i­cal in­jury, some are more sus­cep­ti­ble to harm than oth­ers, and there’s no sim­ple for­mula to say who will be af­fected, when, or why.

One thing I can tell you is that it is ex­haust­ing for ev­ery­one in­volved. For spouses, for friends, for ev­ery­one. It is a cir­cle that, when you’re feel­ing fine and least ex­pect it, loops around and comes back at you all over again. And when it does, you are plunged into de­spair sim­ply be­cause you feel that, no mat­ter how hard you try, you end up right back at the be­gin­ning again. You don’t seem to gain any ground, and that is dev­as­tat­ing.

What can we do? We can lis­ten, and we can make sure that no one feels that they aren’t al­lowed to talk or that talk­ing, ad­mit­ting they are suf­fer­ing, makes them some­how a fail­ure. We can watch when peo­ple start to put up walls, when they sud­denly choose to dis­ap­pear into the back­ground, and try to nudge them to­wards help.

We can ap­pre­ci­ate that it’s not just PTSD suf­fer­ers that need sup­port, but their fam­i­lies as well. Be­cause it’s some­thing that’s hard for you to un­der­stand in your own head, you need to chew it over and over and over again, the dis­cus­sion be­come so repet­i­tive for ev­ery­one else as to even­tu­ally make even raw de­spair bor­ing.

We lose some of our most ex­pe­ri­enced and em­pathic first re­spon­ders every year — some be­cause they can’t work any longer, some be­cause they com­mit sui­cide. It’s a tremen­dous waste of skills, ex­pe­ri­ence and lives.

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