Late one night in the summer of 2014, Bill Rusk, a police sergeant in Owen Sound, Ont., was crouched on the roof of a downtown store, watching the window of a second-floor apartment in the building next door. His squad had come to bust up a drug deal, and had been told that a violent man was hiding inside with a sawed-off shotgun.
A few moments later, the apartment window lifted slightly, and Sgt. Rusk noticed the flash of something silver. “In my mind,” he recalls, “that was like a gun.”
The decorated 29-year veteran – and the senior officer at the scene – trained his rifle on the window. “But there was something that made me wait that extra second, because I have this checklist of what I think of before I pull that trigger.” (On that list: Are my people safe? Are there hostages inside? Bystanders nearby? Do I have legal cause to shoot?)
After taking a second look, Sgt. Rusk reached through the open window and yanked the suspect out; other officers on the scene rushed forward and arrested him. It was only after police entered the apartment that Sgt. Rusk learned that the silver object was a small speaker that the gunman was using to prop the window open.
It was the sergeant’s third confrontation with armed suspects in two weeks and, although the raid ended peacefully, he soon found himself plummeting to the depths of a psychological crisis the likes of which he hadn’t experienced in years.
Most commonly associated with soldiers returning from combat, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that afflicts individuals who have sustained a profoundly shocking or traumatic experience, and then continue to endure a range of symptoms – including flashbacks, extreme anxiety, depression, outbursts of rage, and hypervigilance – often, long after the fact. A recent Globe and Mail investigation found that 54 Canadian soldiers and vets who served in Afghanistan took their lives after returning from battle (and, according to updates from the military and further reporting by The Globe, that toll has now reached at least 62).
Far less understood is that PTSD afflicts all sorts of civilian workers – particularly firefighters, paramedics and police officers. While Canadian data is scarce, surveys conducted by researchers in the United States, Britain, Australia and Brazil show that the rate of PTSD among first responders ranges from 5 to 22 per cent, with paramedics reporting the highest levels, according to a 2012 article in the Journal of Workplace Health and Safety by B.C. nurse Cheryl Drewitz-Chesney. A 2009 study, conducted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, found that as many as one in three police officers in the United States report at least partial PTSD symptoms.
Across Canada, thousands of first responders are struggling, frequently in silence, with the consequences of jobs that expose them to a daily diet of horrors: monstrous violence, suicides in progress, mangled bodies, inconsolable relatives. Last fall, to cite one example, eight of the 15 paramedics who responded to a devastating collision north of Toronto, which claimed the lives of a grandfather and three young children, had to take leave to deal with PTSD symptoms.
And the disorder is not restricted to first responders alone.
Also among the victims are 9-1-1 dispatchers, search-and-rescue workers, and transit operators at the controls when their vehicles strike someone, especially individuals attempting suicide. Often, responders return to work – having coped to varying degrees with their experiences – only to endure traumatic echoes years or decades later. More…