Chris Stolte has been a paramedic for 24 years and has made it his mission to fight post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for the sake of his colleagues that he’s seen succumb to the condition over the years.
He just led a demonstration in Lambton County, in southwestern Ontario between the cities of Sarnia and London, to call for their employer to provide a critical debriefing team for paramedics who experience a traumatic call.
Local County Councillors came out and spoke to the paramedics that day.
“We opened up their eyes,” says Chris. “They have very little knowledge about PTSD. People might hear about something going on provincially, but don’t understand the problems are local, too. PTSD is a problem right across the province, in both urban and rural areas.”
As defined in a new law currently before MPPs at Queen’s Park, post-traumatic stress disorder “means an anxiety disorder that develops after exposure to a traumatic event or experience with symptoms that may include flashbacks, nightmares and intense feelings of fear or horror.”
Chris is highly concerned by PTSD and its impact on the rate of suicide among first responders: paramedics, firefighters, police officers, military personnel, etc. He sees the devastating effects that traumatic incidents can have. PTSD manifests itself in different ways for people, sometimes hiding and self-medicating. The illness can also lead to relationship problems and separation and divorce.
Here’s Chris’s analogy to help the average person understand the reality of how PTSD works: “Everyone in life carries around a bucket, and every time we experience different types of stressors, a bit of water gets added to the bucket. In this job eventually your bucket is going to overflow if left unchecked. So we need to try to mitigate the damage, and provide resources and education before the bucket overflows.”
If you feel symptoms of PTSD, you can get help. Chris says that people are reluctant to come forward with problems but “with proper help, it can be cured.” He says it’s common for paramedics to go to bed thinking about calls, whether it’s one from tonight or 10 years ago. But there’s no shame in it.
As a society we need to realize that heroes are human. That’s a term used by the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, an organization created by Vince Savoia, the paramedic who in 1988 was called to the scene of the horrific murder of a young woman named Tema Conter in Toronto. The fund helps other paramedics and creates awareness for critical incident stress and post-traumatic stress disorder, and also highlights the alarming suicide statistics for first responders: so far in 2015 alone, 26 first responders and 7 military members have died by suicide in Canada.
Chris is fortunate to have a great rapport with his work partner. They always discuss stressful calls after they finish them, and try to find some resolution. Every paramedic needs access to this kind of support and more.
Attitudes about mental health are changing, but laws can also change, and that helps a lot.
In February 2014, Bill C-67, a piece of legislation introduced by Toronto MPP Cheri Di Novo to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder as a workplace health and safety issue for paramedics and other emergency first responders, passed second reading. The bill is currently in committee where a group of MPPs will look at it in detail before voting on it at third reading, one of the final steps required before becoming law.
Chris strongly supports this law. “Any progress is good. We’ve opened a lot of eyes and started a process until we have what we need to protect us. There are 7,900 paramedics in province of Ontario, and 25% could suffer from PTSD during their career. We need to have avenues to accommodate people so that ultimately they can keep doing their job for the long-term.”
Paramedics have a strong sense of caring. Chris mentions his colleague Joe, who volunteers as a peer support counsellor. Fellow Lambton County paramedics can call Joe up and have a discussion about a bad day. It’s confidential, and if they need extra help, Joe will help refer them on to the next step.
Like family, paramedics have to look after each other. But they can't do it alone. As Chris says, “in the long run, sucking it up about PTSD is only going to hurt us. Everyone has the calls they don’t like going to for personal reasons. We need to address this now for the next generation of paramedics.”