Dr. Ian Shulman recently spent a week with Badge of Life Canada and ten, first responders, all recovering from work-related PTSD. Badge of Life Canada is a national, volunteer organization, dedicated to helping first responders recover from trauma, through peer support activities.
The group met in the the beautiful town of Lion’s Head, Ontario, just south of Tobermory on a Sunday and gradually got to know each other over the next six days. This particular group was made up of four former police officers, three paramedics and three corrections officers. All had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder related to events from their work. PTSD is a condition that can occur when a person experiences something horrific or terrifying, that threatens their life or someone else’s. Even after the event is over, a person with PTSD might remain fearful, always on-guard and might struggle to feel safe with others, or in the world.
PTSD can be different in the first responder community, mostly because first responders tend to experience many more tragic and disturbing situations than ordinary citizens might. For first responders, the trauma can be cumulative, meaning that many, many difficult situations build up and weigh heavily on the individual. Adding to the challenge, first responders often have to race from call to call to call, leaving them little or no time to process through what they have just experienced. Unfortunately, the workplace culture within some police, fire, paramedic and corrections organizations still places a lot of stigma on people who show their emotions or take time off to heal. Within those toxic cultures, individuals who take the brave step of being vulnerable by sharing feelings or talking about how they might be struggling with something they saw or had to do are often still viewed by others as weak or somehow failing. Of course this is untrue, but when so few talk about what they are going through, many first responders cope by keeping it all inside and trying to act as if all is just fine. Thankfully that culture is starting to change.
The Badge of Life Canada program brings together small groups of male and female first responders and creates a safe environment where they can begin to talk openly about their struggles, without feeling judged. The recent retreat that Dr. Ian participated in was also co-lead by your other, former police officers, all of whom have had their own challenges with PTSD and unsupportive work environments. Together, they have committed to easing the emotional burdens on others in the first responder community by teaching new skills and creating opportunities for healing through safe and welcoming discussion.
Over the course of the week, the group participated in many, formal and informal discussion groups about trauma and recovery. We also spent time with horses for some extremely special equine therapy, used a high-ropes course to challenge fears and beliefs that kept participants feeling stuck, and introduced the group to cross-fit training as a way to highlight the importance of self-care. We ate our meals together, spent time hiking the Bruce Trail, and practiced daily meditation and some yoga, to reconnect people to their bodies. Métis teachings were an important part of the process and we all got to benefit from the presence of and support of a Métis elder, who also had a career in policing.
Overall, it was an excellent week and each of the 10 participants reported feeling more supported than they had in any other activity or treatment group.
As a volunteer, non-profit organization, Badge of Life Canada requires donations of money and time to provide their services. Contact Badge of Life Canada here if you want to get involved or offer your support.