New website targets first responders struggling with mental health

·3 min read

Nova Scotia first responders have had a hand in creating a new website intended to help their colleagues recognize when they need mental health support.

Debbie Fortune and her husband, Jason, have both been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder while working as paramedics in Cape Breton.

Fortune said her husband left his job in 2012, and it took years for him to get a diagnosis and proper treatment.

There weren't many PTSD resources available to civilians, she said, so the couple went to a military support group and were surprised to find people with different jobs had the same experiences.

"That was one of the turning points for us, to just feel like we're not alone," said Fortune.

"People understand this, and we're not failures. We're injured and that's OK. We can deal with an injury. When you don't know you have an injury, where do you begin to try to get better?"

PTSD not always easy to recognize

It's easy enough to identify an injury when someone has broken a bone or is bleeding, she said, but PTSD is not immediately obvious to the person with the disorder.

It is also complicated and can't always be tied to a particularly bad incident, Fortune said.

"It's often not those very traumatic experiences," she said. "It's more of those sad moments, the day-to-day things that you witness being in people's homes."

The couple had ups and downs even after Jason's diagnosis. Fortune said she and her husband separated for a while, but eventually got back together after his care improved.

It was a shock when her own diagnosis came just this summer.

While getting help was easier, Fortune said she struggled to even acknowledge she had the disorder.

'I should have known'

"It was very unexpected," she said. "I should have known. I was well versed in the symptoms. How could I possibly have this?"

Fortune is currently off work, but said she is getting help and plans to return to her job in January.

She was among a group of police officers, firefighters, nurses and experts in workers compensation that helped create a new mental health website allowing first responders and their loved ones to identify when help is needed.

"I am hoping that my experience with my own diagnosis and my own journey to try to heal, is something that I can say to people, 'There is a way back,'" said Fortune.

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, was also on the committee and said there is still stigma around mental health and it may be more prevalent among first responders.

She said the number of workplace claims for mental health from first responders has increased, demonstrating the need for the new website.

"It doesn't hurt just to check in through the website and you can talk to counsellors or you can do it virtually," Hazelton said.

"First responders need to understand that it's OK. It's OK to acknowledge that a traumatic event has affected your mental health, and you need to be not ashamed to seek help."

Fortune said Nova Scotians have had a particularly hard time this year with COVID-19 and the mass shooting. While the website is geared toward first responders, it has information and tools that anyone can use.

"There are going to be people that are affected by that, and not necessarily because they're a first responder," she said.