Need for better mental health supports is underlined by the suicides of 13 Canadian first responders — police, paramedics, firefighters — in 10 weeks.
Vince Savoia knows what it’s like to be a first responder living with post traumatic stress disorder, and he doesn’t want to see other paramedics, police officers or firefighters go through the battle alone.
As a young paramedic in 1988, Savoia responded to a call at a horrific murder scene in Toronto. Seeing Tema Conter’s naked, bound body affected him deeply.
“As I stood by the bed and looked at Tema for the first time, I thought it was my fiancée who had been murdered,” he said. “For some reason, that call — I just connected with that particular incident.”
For 12 years, he struggled with PTSD, at times even considering suicide. Savoia knows he’s not the only one.
Thirteen first responders across Canada have killed themselves in the past 10 weeks, Savoia said. Among them was former RCMP corporal Ken Barker, who killed himselflast weekend, years after being one of the first officers on the scene of a gruesome beheading aboard a Greyhound bus in 2008. Barker’s family says he had struggled with PTSD for years.
The deaths have been difficult for Savoia, now the founder the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, an organization that speaks out about PTSD among first responders and advocates for better education and resources.
“I hate to say it, but I take it personally,” Savoia said. “If they’d only reached out to us, we could have helped.”
Mental illness continues to carry great stigma, and first responders who speak out about their struggles can face repercussions.
He wants to see a change in how organizations, from police forces to insurance companies, treat people with PTSD.
About 8 per cent of people experience PTSD, but first responders are twice as likely as other Canadians to be among that 8 per cent, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, says there’s still work to be done when it comes to challenging stigma on the police force. Five Toronto police officers have killed themselves in the past 20 years, he said.
“It’s a very macho culture,” McCormack said. “We believe we’re infallible and things don’t affect us. It has been a challenge and continues to be a challenge to erode that culture.”
Stigma around mental illness persists not just in police culture, but in society in general, said Kevin Flynn, Ontario’s minister of labour.
“We’re dealing with an issue that, as a society … people haven’t been able to come to grips with in the past, haven’t been able to talk about,” he said.
Flynn said the provincial government has been talking with first responders, the Workplace Safety and Inspection Board and mental health professionals for two years, and recently developed a report that recommends better education for first responders when it comes to mental health.
Keeping track of the number of first-responder suicides is also an important step, Flynn said.
“When we start to see the magnitude of some of these numbers, I think we’re going to be shocked as a society, and I think we’re going to be prepared to have a call to action,” he said.