N.S. first responders launch education site on trauma amid year of COVID, violence

HALIFAX — A new website was launched Wednesday to assist Nova Scotia first responders coping with trauma, in a year in which a pandemic and a mass shooting have added to the distressing experiences they routinely face.

The site offers resources designed for paramedics, firefighters, police officers and health services workers to help them manage the toll of the trauma they experience at work.

It also provides support for their recovery from traumatic psychological injury, including links to online counselling.

The site www.FirstRespondersMentalHealthNS.com is promoted by posters with the faces of first responders superimposed with phrases reflecting thoughts they may be keeping inside.

They include statements such as "It's hard to quiet the voices in my head," and "There's this heavy feeling."

The website, launched by a provincial steering committee, is modelled on a similar site in British Columbia, and also contains links for family members living with a person with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Debra Fortune, a 42-year-old paramedic who participated in the committee, said in an interview Wednesday that first responders often are reluctant to seek help or are unaware of how to begin.

Her husband Jason Fortune, also a paramedic, developed PTSD in 2014 but went without significant treatment for two years, she said.

Fortune, who started in her field in 2002, gradually accumulated psychological traumas herself from exposure to disturbing scenes, including arriving at a home where a young child had died.

Early this summer, she realized the incident was causing her to lose sleep, as painful memories kept returning. At times, she'd feel a searing pain through her back and neck.

"I had some previous pediatric calls that were very difficult, and all of a sudden I wasn't able to be around my (infant) daughter. I was very fearful," she said.

"When I realized I was avoiding my 16-month-old child that's when I reached out for treatment."

She said she's hopeful that she will be able return to work next year.

Fortune said paramedics across the province have been at a breaking point for years as they try to help patients who are awaiting treatment in backed-up emergency rooms, or move them from one overcrowded hospital to another.

COVID-19 has added to the stress as the paramedics must now often don protective equipment for patients who might have the illness.

"It's very scary because there are many people who aren't always honest with us," she said.

The Nova Scotia mass shooting in April, in which a gunman killed 22 people in a 13-hour rampage, will likely contribute to the number of medics and other first responders with trauma, said Fortune. "We go to work and know anything can happen, but there is nothing that can prepare you for something like that," she said.

Nova Scotia has passed legislation that presumes a diagnosis of PTSD for first responders is related to their work, and they are therefore eligible for workers' compensation.

Fortune said the legislation, along with the new awareness campaign, are giving access to more resources than when her husband became ill.

"Hopefully this site will bring people forward, to get the help that they need," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2020.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press