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RCMP patrol car stationed on Parliament Hill. [Photo © Nathan Bragg]

Natalie Harris isn’t afraid to admit the chinks in her armour.

As a practicing paramedic, Harris knows how to distance her fears from the stress of the job. But after finding two decapitated women and a man with stab wounds in a Barrie suburb in May 2012, the trauma became too much to bear.

“The world turned dark, I had little faith in humanity,” the Simcoe County paramedic reflected.

“It really creeps up on you – it took two years before my world came crashing down.”

Later, Harris was called to the stand to testify in the murder trial of Mark Dobson, who was charged with two accounts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Helen Dorrington, 52 and his girlfriend Mary Hepburn, 32.

Excessive drinking followed, then several drug overdoses and rehab. After she thought she had exhausted all options, Harris tried to take her own life.

That’s when she realized she needed help.

“I realized that my alcoholism was tearing my family apart. My family forced me into therapy. I really don’t know where I would be without them today. “

— Natalie Harris

Harris was formally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2014.

The Canadian Mental Health Association notes that symptoms to look for include nightmares, flash-blacks, nervousness, irritability and numbness.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security released a report Oct. 31 with recommendations for the government’s eventual national strategy on PTSD.

The report said, among other things, that “PTSD among public safety officers and first responders is being brought to the forefront as a public safety issue.”

Vince Savoia, Executive Director of The TEMA Conter Memorial Trust, says the stigma towards PTSD is exacerbated in the first responder community.

” There’s this idea that first responders have to be tough, that they aren’t allowed to react to the situations they’re faced with. How can you be expected to not be affected by trauma? That’s ridiculous. “

— Vince Savoia

There has been expressed interest in a national strategy for a long time, according to Syd Gravel, M.O.M., retired Ottawa Police Sergeant. After living with the aftermath of PTSD for 30 years, he says it’s high time for action.

“Police officers patrol the same streets where they witness trauma for thirty years and there are no services for them. We’ve been waiting to have the right tools and the funding, so now we have to make it happen.”

“This breaks the myth of the ‘trifecta’ of first responders we’re used to – firefighters, paramedics and police.” — Vince Savoia

The committee recommends the expansion of the term first responder to include correctional officers, dispatch officers and personal support workers that also witness trauma on the frontlines.

The committee follows by calling for establishing a clear research body on PTSD and suicide rates affecting first responders.

Anywhere between 15 and 35 per cent of first responders suffer from either PTSD or stress injuries while on the job, the report said; an estimate that is triple the national suicide rate among civilians.

This is something that Gravel says is missing from the conversation.

“We don’t know for a fact how many people have committed suicide, its all speculation. There’s a lot missing and we know now that we have to go out and get it. “

— Syd Gravel, M.O.M

Part of the committee’s suggestions to deemphasize the effects of suicide is early education because as it stands right now, Savoia says, the emphasis of job training is on physical, not mental injuries.

“There is no requirement for schools to teach about suicide prevention even though most cases first responders attend to are suicides, he says.

“At the end the day, a mental health injury is an injury as important as a physical one.”— Vince Savoia

The report also includes measures to provide small town associations with funding in order to meet the needs of first responders living outside Canada’s big cities.

Left out from the committee’s recommendations, Jocelyn Bond believes, are supports for spouses and the families of first responders who face the illness everyday.

Bond created an Ottawa-based support group last year after her own lived experience with her spouse’s PTSD.

“I was the first person to see that my spouse was injured,” she said. “I wanted to offer a safe space to other spouses witnessing similar things.”

While putting money into services is all well and good, according to Harris, government programs are not accessible to all first responders who suffer from PTSD.

“Access to services are life and death in most cases,” she said. “A lot of services are out of pocket, and people need to have financial stability in order to feel like they can recover.”

Although a national strategy might be in reach, Harris says the effects of post-traumatic stress do not disappear overnight.

“PTSD is cumulative for first responders – its part of the sights, smells that impact us. We see things all the time…its important to work on that recovery everyday.”

— Natalie Harris

Public Safety Canada said in a statement that they will respond to the committee’s report “in due time” because first responders “deserve the government’s support and care”.

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