Post-Traumatic Stress Injury: Hearing, Helping, Healing

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Jim Regimbal chaired the Yukon Employees’ Union’s recent Human Rights panel discussions of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury.  As Dawson City’s Fire Chief, President of the Association of Yukon Fire Chiefs, and Yukon’s Director on the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, he has advocated for improved services to first responders suffering from PTSI and has been instrumental in bringing the issue into focus in Yukon.  He provided powerful empathy and insight earned from his many years on the job. 

The first step is acknowledging and accepting that, whatever name it’s given, Post-Traumatic Stress Injury is real and that trauma significant enough to cause injury can’t easily be quantified. The science supports this, with mountains of evidence explaining the changes to brain structure caused by exposure to trauma. We can’t choose not to “believe in PTSI” any more than we can choose not to believe in climate change. The evidence is clear and the science is irrefutable.

PTSI can be the result of a sudden, dramatic incident but it is just as likely to develop invisibly over many years.  Its onset can come without warning, sometimes after a seemingly benign event.  Whitehorse Psychologist Nicole Bringsli used a water glass analogy; a glass can hold only so much liquid.  All it takes is one too many ordinary, inconsequential drops of water and the glass spills over.  We can witness and contain only so much pain and trauma before we reach our capacity to cope and, like the water glass, we risk spilling over.

What constitutes trauma?  There’s no easy answer. Trauma that affects one individual very profoundly can sometimes be borne by another, or can be overcome with access to the right kind of support at the right time.  Bringsli reminded us that each individual brings their own history and sensibilities to their work, and each person responds differently to similar circumstances.

What occupations or events are likely to lead to psychological injury?  Combat veterans, first responders like firefighters, police officers, EMS providers, dispatchers and corrections officers witness things they can’t ever forget, scenes and calls that will affect them forever.  A career of running into burning buildings, delivering terrible news or fighting to save lives takes an enormous toll on the heart and psyche.  There are many lines of work that put people at risk, and it’s important to recognize the danger so we can provide appropriate resources to all those who need them.

Many caring professions are occupied predominantly by women, and many struggle silently with the emotional impacts of that difficult work. Though rarely labelled PTSI, the ongoing emotional trauma has the same impact on quality of life and mental health. It’s time to consider how broadly affected both men and women are by their work, and how many professions are high risk for psychological injury.

Social workers face heartbreaking situations in the line of duty. Removing children from dangerous homes, denying parental access and leaving vulnerable children in foster situations takes a terrible toll. Sheena Larose, a former Child Protective Services worker from Ontario recently wrote “Unless you are in the trenches, people don’t understand that child protection work can be among the most intensive, heart-wrenching and volatile work one could ever encounter.”

Social workers counsel child abuse victims and must bear witness for their frightened and confused young clients. When we talk about social workers’ emotional health, we often say they have “burned out”… we don’t consider PTSI as a likely outcome.  Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue – whatever we call it, the results can be life altering and career limiting.

Front line workers in shelters for domestic violence victims face recurring trauma – imagine the daily challenge of maintaining a healthy outlook when you’re immersed in the pain of others.  How hard must it be to turn a woman away when your facility has no space, knowing she and her children have no choice but to return to a dangerous home?  These workers must also remain anonymous to protect the security of those they help, and so they often have no choice but to struggle in silence, without recognition or support.

Prevention is more valuable than cure; our panel members spoke again and again of the urgent need for effective critical incident de-briefing practices, currently almost non-existent in Yukon. They talked of the need for trained peer support, for non-judgemental listening and for access to counselling services. Other jurisdictions have comprehensive supports we haven’t even begun to consider here in the Territory. 

When our panel was asked for a wish list to help combat Post-Traumatic Stress Injury, there was consensus on the need for critical incident debriefing, for pro-active discussion and peer support. More funding is needed to ensure local mental health service providers are resourced to provide care when it’s needed. Employers must prioritize worker safety and be as diligent in protecting the minds and spirit of their employees as they are about their physical well-being.    

Jeannie Dendys, Yukon’s new Minister responsible for the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health & Safety Board offered her commitment to supporting PTSI prevention & treatment.  YWCHSB Chair Kurt Dieckmann stressed the role of the employer and the value of prevention.  It’s important to make sure protections are built into work environments likely to experience critical stress and trauma.  Normalizing help-seeking behaviour will go far, he says, to de-stigmatizing PTSI and making work safer.

How we respond to our injured colleagues, neighbours and family members, is an indicator of how likely they are to heal.  Forcing sufferers to convince us of their injury, prove its cause and defend their need for help adds insult to injury and creates barriers sometimes too great to overcome.  During the recent Territorial election campaign, new Premier Sandy Silver promised to amend the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Act to include presumptive provisions for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD/PTSI) in first responders. That commitment was echoed by Minister Dendys at our event.  At YEU we believe presumptive provisions must cover first responders, but that other high risk worker groups must also be included if the system is to protect those at greatest risk of harm.

Our community is compassionate; we are quick to help families in need. We support our sick, injured neighbours when there’s a fire, a death or catastrophic illness. That empathy must extend to the helpers, not just to the victims. 

We invite you to watch the full video recording of our two panel discussions.

Watch The Nature of Things for PTSD: Beyond Trauma

 

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Together for Safety

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May 29th 2015 marked the start of a new relationship between women in Whitehorse and the RCMP.  Since 2013, Whitehorse women’s groups and the RCMP have collaborated to create an RCMP Safety Protocol entitled Together for Safety, with the shared goal of improving response services to women in Whitehorse.

In response to a recommendation in the Police Commission report, Yukon women’s advocacy groups formed a coalition to help create the TFS Protocol. Signatories include Les Essentielles, Whitehorse Aboriginal Women’s Circle, Yukon Status of Women Council, the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre, the PSAC Regional Women’s Committee and the PSAC Yukon Aboriginal People’s Committee. The work and collaboration took place over a year, ensuring the many voices were reflected in the finished product.

PSAC member Linda Moen was invited to represent both the Regional Women’s Committee & the Yukon Aboriginal People’s Committee on the newly formed coalition. Linda is a Federal employee, a mother and an aboriginal woman who lives in her First Nation community. Honoured and a bit apprehensive, Linda decided she had the support she needed from the committees to take on the task. She quickly learned that she had much to offer the discussion and learned a lot from the process.

When the Together for Safety Protocol was signed on May 29th  2015, Linda signed on behalf of both committees. As the Protocol takes effect, Linda hopes the spirit of the agreement informs interactions between the women of Whitehorse and the RCMP.

YEU wants to thank Linda Moen, the PSAC Regional Women’s Committee and the Yukon Aboriginal Peoples’ Committee for taking on this role in our community. It’s good to know this is the work our Union is doing, through the dedication and commitment of the committees and their members.