First responders struggle to cope with trauma in outdated culture

by | Apr 7, 2017 | Campus News, Headlines, News

Jon Kennedy
News Reporter

Retired Mountie Glenn Hanna can still vividly describe the pants on one of the first dead bodies he came across while on duty.

“I can’t see a woman wearing those now without thinking of that scene,” he said.

Hanna served 32 years with the RCMP. He is now the assistant program head of Justice Studies at the University of Guelph-Humber.

“Most of my service dealing with it was very internal,” he said, describing how he coped with the cumulative stress of the job.

“You just dealt with it yourself,” Hanna said.

The attitudes are beginning to change about mental health in the first-responders community but controversy exists whether enough is being done to support those in need.

According to TEMA, a GTA-based charity and support group for first responders and military personnel created in 2001 by Humber graduate Vince Savoia, 48 first responders committed suicide in 2016. Another eight have killed themselves in Canada so far this year. Aside from outside groups like TEMA, there is still no national database tracking deaths by suicide.

Erin Alvarez, spokesperson for TEMA, thinks there are numerous obstacles remaining to overcome within the ranks.

“I think the culture is still very, very archaic and that is the major issue, and there is still a lot of work to do,” she said.

Rick Defacendis, a 33-year veteran of Peel Regional Police and a Police Foundations program co-ordinator at Humber College, agrees there is more work to do.

“We have to continue to work on the attitude of police organizations towards those who maybe suffering and police chiefs have to continue to lead in that regard,” said Defacendis.

There is no specific course on mental health in the Police Foundations program but “self-care” is cited in the material.

“We don’t have a course on it that would make sense, but we do thread the theme through a number of different courses related to self-care,” the former Peel homicide detective said.

Defacendis did see some positive changes regarding the stigma during his time in uniform.

“Police organizations know and understand now that these kind of incidents and events can have a cumulative affect on the mental health of their employees,” he said.

Hanna, who was forced to see a psychiatrist due to policy and the nature of his work, was apprehensive at first.

“To be honest I didn’t feel that I needed to do it but I got to tell you when I was in with that person much to my surprise, I rather enjoyed it,” he said.

The mandatory sessions eventually changed his perspective. He now supports a wider institution of that policy within law enforcement.

“I found it useful and it’s made me wonder if it’s maybe something that should be more prevalent,” he said, comparing it to the routine physical tests organizations have done for years.

“That’s why I’m in favor of a mandatory periodic mental health check-up,” he said.

Alvarez pointed out the need for support among first responder occupations – particularly policing, fire fighting and paramedic services — due to the frequency of exposure to high stress and trauma.

“Whether you call it a diagnosable mental health injury or not, they are dealing with trauma every single day,” she said.

Hanna still recalls one of the days when it boiled over for him when he was horsing around with his son.

“He crawled into a hockey bag so I grabbed it to twirl him around and I went to do the zipper up and I completely lost it,” he said getting visibly emotional.

“I had a sudden vision of putting my son in a body bag,” Hanna said.

He reinforced the need for help for those in need.

“There are others who have concerns and they can’t deal with it on their own, nor should they,” Hanna said.

“That’s where these supports have to come in,” he said.