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Traumatic experiences like van attack taxing on first responders, witnesses: expert

The death count from Toronto’s now infamous van attack stands at 10, with 14 injured.

But there are likely many more so-called “invisible victims” — the first responders and witnesses traumatized by the sheer horror that unfolded in broad daylight Monday in North York.

Psychologist Dr. Jonathan Douglas specializes in trauma-related disorders. He treats many first responders from the Greater Toronto Area at his Barrie practice.

He says it’s common for police, paramedics and firefighters to bottle up their emotions so they can get through difficult experiences on the job, only to face mental health issues at a later time.

“It’s after the fact. It’s that comedown when you start to grapple with the enormity of what’s happened and the meaning of what’s happened and that’s when the problems will start to emerge,” he told CityNews.

“Down the road … that’s when sometimes they will end up developing what we call the occupational stress injuries. PTSD is certainly the one we often think of. It’s not the only one. Depression is very common, other anxiety disorders are very common. Substance abuse is a way of numbing out the thoughts and feelings or trying to manage getting to sleep.”

And while Douglas says especially disturbing instances like Monday’s van attack can tax anyone’s mental health, the psychological damage he sees in first responders more often surfaces after years of difficult experiences.

“There’s accumulative impact of doing all that work,” he notes. “Right now a trend I’m seeing in my own practice are first responders who are hitting their 50s and they just can’t do it anymore. So they’ve kind of hit the wall.”

Douglas says witnesses to traumatic events may be even more susceptible to things like anxiety and PTSD, because unlike first responders, they aren’t prepared or trained to deal with the things they’ve seen and may have a harder time finding help.

“The first people on the scene are the witnesses,” he said. “Think about the pizza parlour owner who is just sitting there. He’s doing his job, he has no training and no expectation and suddenly stuff is happening right in front of his store and he has to run out into that street and deal with horrors that he had absolutely zero preparation for.

“So all of these witnesses … that’s a population that I’m really concerned about because of the limited access to health care and psychological care.”

When it comes to first responders, Douglas is hopeful that younger generations will have more supports and mechanisms to cope with the inherent psychological stresses of the job.

“It’s probably only within the last five or six years that we’ve been paying any attention to this at all,” he adds.

“I think the younger first responders are much more likely to have that self-awareness all the way through their careers … they will pay more attention, they might take time off more rapidly … and take that time to recover from that very difficult call more frequently through their career and that might end up being protective.

“Peer support is the first step.”

No one knows that more than Brad McKay. McKay is a retired veteran with 33 years of service with York Regional Police and an advisor for Badge of Life Canada — an organization that supports police and corrections personnel who are dealing with psychological injuries diagnosed from service.

“A career in policing or any first responder organization … you don’t exit out the door the same person you came in,” he explains.

“There’s a lot of intrusive memories. There’s a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of anger and frustration … but through connections and peer support … that’s what helps you move forward.”

He now uses his vast experience on the front lines to help a new generation of officers.

“That experience gives you more awareness on how to best support those coming behind you,” he says. “In the early days there wasn’t a lot of supports out there for us, so behind us we want to make sure that there’s a path that makes it better for those coming up the road.”

Most importantly, he’s seen the stigma around mental health slowly begin to dissolve.

“Being aware of your mental health and the things you have to do to help yourself is a show of strength, and not weakness.”