Vancouver firefighter Greg Gauthier poses in this undated handout photo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Steve Baer)

Firefighter says stigma prevented him from seeking counselling after traumatic event

“There’s a stigma and we’re trying to break that down,” said Vancouver firefighter Greg Gauthier

Eighteen years as a firefighter had exposed Greg Gauthier to endless trauma but a call involving a tour bus hitting a family triggered his descent into mental illness as intrusive thoughts and sleepless nights became his daily existence.

Gauthier, 48, could no longer function at work but the stigma of asking for help in a job where chaos is the norm initially prevented him from reaching out.

“I knew something was wrong right after that call,” he said of the August 2017 incident when an American man died and three others were injured as a bus rolled into a crowd of tourists, pinning at least two people beneath the vehicle.

RELATED: First responders share struggles with adversity in new Delta Police podcast

Gauthier said it wasn’t the most horrific situation he’d encountered, but it was the one that broke him emotionally.

Over and over again, he would relive the scene of people taking cellphone video of the crash scene as police dealt with a hoard of visitors near a busy cruise-ship terminal and convention centre. Gauthier’s family life began to unravel and he felt helpless.

“When you don’t have control of your mind and when you can’t block those thoughts then you feel like you’re losing control and it’s an incredibly distressing feeling,” he said. “I’m still dealing with it a year and a half later but I’m certainly managing it.”

Gauthier finally realized that as a supervisor he had to set an example for the rest of his crew at a Vancouver fire hall so colleagues who had also been at the scene and others like it could feel free to talk about their struggles in a job that required them to soldier on day after day.

“There’s a stigma and we’re trying to break that down,” he said as he prepared to share his experience and gradual return to work at a conference of first responders meeting in Richmond, B.C., on Thursday and Friday.

About 350 people including firefighters, police officers, paramedics, dispatchers as well as their unions and associations are taking part in the event that will feature Gauthier and others in jobs where trauma is part of the job but talking about its impact is not.

READ MORE: 350 B.C. first responders to gather and talk about their mental health

Gauthier said he wondered if he’d have to prove himself all over again if he took time off, if he’d put the “brotherhood and sisterhood” of his job at risk.

“Part of my healing, part of my therapy, is talking about it,” he said, adding he got counselling. When he returned to work after five months he didn’t initially go out on calls, worked shorter days and slowly exposed himself to the rigours of the job, including driving past the accident scene that led to his breakdown.

WorkSafeBC, the provincial workers’ health and safety agency, brought together a committee of 14 first responder agencies that organized the conference.

Trudi Rondou, senior manager of industry and labour services for WorksafeBC, said the goal is to work toward dismantling the stigma of mental illness suffered by those who focus on protecting public safety but often need help themselves to cope with extraordinary stress.

The key to getting that help is a commitment from employers to put prevention, peer-support and return-to-work programs in place, she said.

“We did some research among first responders and that was one thing we clearly heard, that this has to be a culture change and we need to make sure our leaders are invested in this, not only with their words but with the budget and action behind it.”

Otherwise, the costs range from low productivity, a high number of sick days and the potential for long-term disability from post-traumatic stress disorder, Rondou said.

RELATED: Know the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder

RELATED: After prison riot, Abbotsford guard struggled for help with PTSD

Last year, the British Columbia government amended legislation allowing first responders including emergency medical assistants, firefighters, police officers, sheriffs and correctional officers to make WorkSafeBC claims for compensation and health-care support if they’d been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, without having to prove it was related to their work.

Greg Anderson, dean of applied research at the Justice Institute of B.C., said most provinces have similar legislation, but coverage for first-responder jobs varies.

RELATED: B.C. paramedics focus of PTSD documentary

In Nova Scotia, for example, emergency-room nurses are included in so-called presumptive legislation while some provinces have coverage for post-traumatic stress injury and others only accept claims for post-traumatic stress disorder, Anderson said.

Last June, the federal government adopted presumptive legislation to combat post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by federal first responders, including employees of the RCMP, the Correctional Service of Canada and those in enforcement roles for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

On Wednesday, Conservative MP Todd Doherty, who had introduced the bill, asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during question period why the government had not yet acted on the legislation to develop a national action strategy.

“This spring we will be moving forward with the plan to fight PTSD that the minister of Public Safety and Security will put forward,” Trudeau said.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

RCMP, ERT attending incident at Cheam First Nation

Few details are available about the incident, which saw more than a dozen police cars attend

Chiefs kick off exhibition pre-season stint at Hope Arena

Catch the Chilliwack Chiefs on the ice as they prepare for fresh season

Stellar Haze offers up ‘organic rock’ at Memorial Park

Trio hitting the stage for their first live performance this Friday

Kent quarry opposition receives federal support

Green Party leader Elizabeth May wrote to the provincial government to oppose the quarry application

Agassiz United Church to host 37th annual garage sale

The annual sale will take place on Saturday, Sept. 7

Sts’ailes invites adults to become engaged in Halq’eméylem with new video series

‘Qw’oqwel te Qw’oqwel’ gives language learners an immersive way to learn Halq’eméylem

Conan turns to the Property Brothers for tips on buying Greenland

Jonathan Scott suggests removing glaciers and mountains to bring in ‘more natural light’

Forests minister visits B.C. town hit by multiple mill shutdowns

A third of Mackenzie turns out for rally, not much to cheer about

B.C. sockeye returns drop as official calls 2019 ‘extremely challenging’

Federal government says officials are seeing the same thing off Alaska and Washington state

North Van music teacher accused of sexual misconduct involving girls

Police believe other victims could be out there after the arrest of Lamar Victor Alviar

B.C. family stranded in Croatia desperate to come home

Funds being raised to bring back mom and two children

B.C. man on trial for daughters’ murders an intruder broke in

Andrew Berry takes stand in his defense for December 2017 deaths of young daughters

‘Plenty of time for a deal’: Teachers’ union expects kids back in school on Sept. 3

BCTF says class size, composition at the heart of the issue

Most Read