Toronto EMS ambulance

Suicides by first responders raise alarm, prompt awareness campaign

“I sat in silence,” Terry Ng said.

“After a brief bit, my colleague uttered that this was so messed up.”

For Ng, a York Region paramedic, this was his first time dealing with an unsuccessful resuscitation of a child.

It hit him hard.

He’d been working as a paramedic for only a couple months, he told his colleague.

“He looked up at me: ‘Oh God. Are you ok?’ And then I uttered, ‘I don’t know’. I just sat there staring off.”

The stress Ng felt is not uncommon and for some it can be deadly.

By the numbers

In 2011, Canada’s suicide rate was about 10.8 per 100,000. In that same year, 3,728 Canadians of all ages killed themselves — that’s five times as many people as are killed by someone else.

Source: Statistics Canada

According to the Tema Conter Memorial Trust — a charity that provides support to military and emergency services workers — nearly 30 first responder suicides were reported across Canada from April to early November.

It’s an issue Toronto Emergency Medical Services (EMS) takes seriously, said Kim McKinnon, superintendent of public information for the organization.

“I believe that we are the only employer in Toronto that has a full time psychologist working around the clock to provide one on one counselling,” she said. “We have a critical incident stress management team that is available as a peer-to-peer support system that many EMS personal access.”

Similar supports are available to paramedics in York Region. Ng found the help he received after his first traumatic experience on the job to be extremely helpful, he said.

“It was not till afterwards that it hit me hard,” Ng said. “The peer support was instrumental in helping me feel better in a short time. It was great to help me feel like I was not alone.”

Ng considers himself fortunate to have so far escaped any symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

David Whitley wasn’t as lucky.

Whitley, a first responder and member of the Toronto EMS Critical Incident Stress Management Team, was diagnosed with PTSD in 2000 after a traumatic workplace accident: an ambulance rollover.

A “cult of the hero” exists among first responders, who aren’t supposed to talk about their anxiety, he said.

“We are control freaks and inadvertently we set ourselves up,” Whitley said. “Culturally, we are taught to be tough and to suck up our stress. There is a social stigma against first responders who express their weakness.”

To combat that stigma and encourage first responders to seek help when they need it, the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, the Ontario Psychological Association, and the Public Services Health and Safety Association launched the “You Are Not Alone” suicide awareness campaign in October.

“Something needs to change,” Tema Conter Memorial Trust founder and executive director Vince Savoia said in an Oct. 6 press release. “People are too afraid to reach out for and ask for help.”

Ng agreed, but said things are getting better.

“Paramedics were made to feel like they had to suck it up,” Ng said. “That type of thought in our field is now changing.”

One comment:

  1. the depth and breadth of emergency repsonders (I spent 25 years in the field as a medic/driver) is so under estimated that we are guessing only at the numbers.

    While it’s keenly important for the public to know this, the battle is to get the responders to look, listen and stop fearing their reputation or job will bee in ruins if they simply ask for help.

    When we are not saving lives, let’s try to prevent our own death at our own hand.

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