PTSD and First Responders – No, you don’t know what it’s like to be them
I heard someone talking about how trendy PTSD is now throughout Canada. She said it was the latest mental health craze and everyone is getting it, from Toronto to Vancouver and everywhere in between. It reminded me how embarrassed I was to tell people I had ADHD after I’d received a psychiatric diagnosis 10 years ago. For the most part, I wouldn’t tell people. But when I did, the reactions ranged from people pretending they didn’t hear me to people insisting there is no such thing. But most people dismissed what I said with, “Yeah, everyone is saying they have that now.” That was the worst. I simultaneously felt like a freak and a fraud.
Canadian Society Minimizes Trauma and PTSD
Now that “everyone has trauma”, I’m wondering if people who really do have PTSD are feeling the same way. I’m thinking about first responders who silently pretended everything was fine when they were actually in mental “hell”. I suspect if they finally admit they have mental trauma from their occupation, they too will hear “Yeah, everyone is saying they have PTSD now”. We need to get the message out that PTSD is real. There’s no confusion. It’s a real thing if you have it and minimizing another person’s trauma by suggesting it’s somehow trendy can set off a shame spiral with horrific consequences. At the same time, we need to get the message out the PTSD does have treatment options, and there are even specific treatment options for first responders suffering from PTSD.
Ignorance and Uncompassionate Language is Fueling the Stigma of PTSD and Trauma
We could probably all agree that people, in general, are pretty callous in the ways we discuss mental health issues. I’ve been liberally using the term “crazy” for decades until someone pointed out it didn’t align with my work as an advocate for people suffering from mental health problems. Any person can develop blind spots in their language and opinions and say things that they’d think were pretty cruel in other circumstances. When it comes to PTSD and first responders suffering from it, I doubt that anyone really wants to hurt them, but it’s also true that we aren’t being careful not to hurt them either.
PTSD and Trauma are not the Same as Bad Days
I talked to a firefighter the other day who told me that the very worst thing for him before he admitted he needed help was the paralyzing fear he’d experience, sometimes with no warning. Prior to PTSD, he felt like he’d never had any real fear at all. The fear is still part of his life but since he’s been diagnosed, he says the shame he feels when people compare his PTSD to the way they felt after a bad break up can be overwhelming, even if he knows they are completely wrong.
Minimizing PTSD and Trauma reinforces Feelings of Failure and Worthlessness
In general, the first responders I’ve spoken to tell me comparisons of operational PTSD and everyday life problems reinforces their sense of failure and worthlessness because they hold themselves to a lot higher standard than the rest of us. We’ve all heard the saying that “first responders are the people running towards a problem when everyone else is running away.” Duty, honour, and courage are just as important to firefighters and other first responders as they are to soldiers in our military. We should make sure we are as thoughtful and supportive of our domestic heroes as we are for those fighting on our behalf overseas. For starters, we need to stop having opinions about PTSD and instead start listening and learning about it. It’s the one thing we can all do. The first step towards treatment options for first responders with PTSD is this recognition.