On Robin Williams and Canada

 

 

 

 

 

 

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As the world reacts to the news that actor/comedian Robin Williams has passed in what is being reported as a possible suicide, the event is bringing renewed attention to the issue of depression. At the same time a recent article in the Global News, an on line Canadian news paper, highlights the recent spate of suicides among Canadian first responders. You could look at this post as having nothing much to do with you if you aren’t an extremely successful and well loved Hollywood celebrity or if you don’t happen to hail from the Maple Leaf. However, if you are here and reading this odds are you are a first responder, and it has everything to do with you.

Robin Williams had been very candid in the press with his on-going struggles with depression and drug and alcohol addiction. Williams claimed he had never been formally diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder but that he would get extremely down and sad for periods of time, which usually resulted in him turning to drugs or alcohol as self-treatment. While the symptoms of depression and/or bi-polar disorder could have actually contributed to some of his success with his high-energy brand of comedy (the manic up-side), the downside of the disease(s) were clearly worse.

So what does this have to do with Canadian first responders? It just so happens that Global News published a report on July 17, 2014 discussing 13 suicides among police officers, firefighters, EMT/Paramedics, dispatchers and jail staff in 10 weeks. Many, if not all, of these suicides are being attributed to the effect of PTSD, associated depression and other mental illness in these public servants.  This is not just a Canadian issue, as we all should know. PTSD and depression know no international boundaries and the common job we all share make us very susceptible to the diseases.

Many of you know that I struggle with depression. If you did not you can read about my history and diagnoses in a post I wrote about it here. I am not ashamed to say this. More of us need to be unashamed about the fact that we need help with some of the things we witness due to this job. The stigma of mental illness needs to be crushed if any real progress will be made toward lowering the number of public servant suicides. Our brothers and sisters need to feel safe in coming forward with their struggles before help is sought. Looking weak, fearing further isolation from their co-workers, worrying about job security or re-assignment, and a feeling of needing to deal with it on their own because they deal with everyone else’s problems are just some of the reasons “we” don’t seek help and take advantage of the resources that are many times already available to us.

Discussing mental illness isn’t as sexy as talking about flow path. It isn’t as glamorous as rallying support for the brothers and sisters succumbing to the cancers killing them from working at Ground Zero. But it is killing us the same as any other danger we face. It is something we can do something about if we all just have the courage to bring it out of the darkness and into the light.

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Watching Out For Each Other

* Image Copyright 2009 Paul Combs, all rights reserved

By now you have probably heard of the terrible news out of Aurora, Colorado from last nights senseless shooting at a midnight screening of the last in the series of the “Batman” trilogy. In case you have not here are some links to the coverage, L.A. Times, ABC News and CNN. My thoughts and prayers are with all those innocent people who were killed and wounded just for trying to go see a movie and have a fun night out as well as their families and friends who will be affected by this event for long after. But my thoughts immediately turned to the firefighters, paramedics and police officers who responded to the scene.

This scene had the potential to be a career altering one to many that were there last night, whether they realized it at the time or not. From the probie or new patrol officer just out of the academy right up to the grizzled veteran with decades of experience anyone could be susceptible to the unusual amount of stress and emotions that they were subject to last night. Especially since, according to reports, there were children involved. The next days, weeks and months will be critical for all involved in this horrific event. The brothers and sisters that work alongside those involved are going to need to be acutely aware of their co-workers behavior, moods and tendencies and not be afraid to speak up if they notice anything that could lead them to believe that anything unhealthy is going on. Anger issues and irritability are the least of the problems that could lead to alcoholism, depression and even suicide. I would hate to think that I sat idly by while I watched a brother or sister spiral down and take their own life while knowing I had a feeling I should say something to him or her, or a supervisor. I wouldn’t want that on my conscience. Bosses, look for it. Union reps, look for it and push the administration to schedule Critical Incident Stress Debriefings if they have not done so already. Everyone needs to be each others keepers.

The incident does not need to be on the size and scope of Aurora to have an effect on someone either. You never know what will get to someone. One that got to me was a fatal involving a child very soon after I found out my wife was pregnant with our first child. I wasn’t even a father yet, but just knowing I was going to be in a relatively short amount of time stirred up emotions in me that I had never experienced responding to a similar scene multiple times before in my career. It took me by surprise and several days to process through what was going on with me and why. A little while ago my friend Lloyd Mitchell, an aspiring firefighter and current photojournalist, shot one of his first homicide scenes. Soon after he polled his network of public safety friends for how we get over bad scenes. I offered my insights as I’m sure numerous others did. While I offered my advice sincerely and with best of intentions, as others surely did, unfortunately I feel that it is a most individual thing. There are tools you can use that many counsellors, psychologists and doctors advocate for dealing with stress issues, but in the end I think it comes down to what healthy method works for you and, unfortunately, exposure to enough of it. After a while that crust does get built-up. But that does’t mean that something, at some time, won’t make it through.

Keep your eyes and ears open for each other brothers and sisters. Don’t be afraid to speak up. I’d rather be called an asshole or be told to mind my own business than look at a widow at a funeral knowing I had “a feeling” and never said anything.

Be safe. Be healthy.

Keep the Aurora and surrounding Brothers and Sisters in your thoughts and prayers.

Chris