Living and dealing with PTSD

A nationwide mental health epidemic that is striking Canada’s front line


Artwork by Dion Fortie

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is recognized throughout the world as a legitimate and serious problem, but it’s often one that goes untreated for fear of scrutiny from other men and women in some stressful occupations. Canadians rely heavily on our first responders to protect our society from injustice and provide safety on a regular basis, although they regularly face injustice on a day-to-day basis themselves.

One problem that is often overlooked in this field is the emotional wear and tear that these professionals face and the traumatic stress that they encounter each time they put on their boots and leave the station. The education for PTSD provided to first responders when they enter the field as a rookie and as they progress in their career is severely lacking, according to some. The topic is very important because they are the first responders of Canada – they are men like Shannon Pennington, who has dedicated a lifetime to protecting the country they love while also combating the daily terrors of living with PTSD.

Pennington started his professional firefighting career in September 1976 and was discharged in January 2002. His career on Canada’s front line began in the armed forces where he served as a Warrant Officer and was bestowed the Legion of Frontiersmen Exemplary Conduct Medal before being later awarded the Exemplary Fire Service Conduct Medal for Canada. For 26 years he held a membership for the Calgary Fire Department Honour Guard, and was elected as president, maintaining that position for seven years. In March 2002 he was appointed as Executive Director of the North American Firefighter Veteran Network. Pennington was diagnosed with PTSD in 2000.

He’s still struggling with the traumas that haunt him every day. He describes PTSD from his own experience by saying “nervous, anxious, dark, hyper, vigilant, not happy, anger and exhaustion, the usual suspects. It takes the firefighter veteran out of life and places them in a struggle for their own identity after it beats the crap out of your mind, body and soul. Never will you be the same as you once were; the new you has to be worked on and formulated. That is if you have access to the rehab tools that only a clinician can guide you to and work with you to develop.”

Pennington talks about how getting to the step of recovery is one of the hardest. He explains that it is often hard to admit that there is a problem. When asked if he believed there was a stigma, he said: “Yes there is definitely a stigma within the community of firefighters. The ‘suck it up’ mentality in the crews and mainly the lack of understanding and awareness at the senior levels of the command structure. The stigma, simply put, is the revelation that you’re a weak person and have a flaw in your character. It is difficult to keep the PTS private if you use department assets such as EAFP (European Association of Faculties of Pharmacy) which is limited. Using the web resource under presumptive legislation keeps you from accessing the most current and up-to-date treatment for PTS.”

The EAFP is an organization that is continually working to improve current medications for those afflicted with the disorder. The combination of medication, treatment and psychological aid overlap to provide the needed support many first responders require.

Pennington understands why there is a stigma around this topic and why it is a sensitive area for many. However, he believes that more education, for rookies and those still in practice, could bring a better future to those who struggle with their mental health. “Education is lacking and needs a complete review and formal instruction on stress management. It should start with testing at the recruit level and continue on to all levels of promotion in the system: screening on a yearly basis for trauma exposure by visiting a psychologist for two or three sessions or more for trauma reactions over the preceding year.” He also understands the symbiotic relationship he must have with the illness. Each day would be a struggle if not for the mental preparation undergone to work with the PTSD and function as a member of the society he once protected.

“You live, eat, sleep, breathe and work with death every time you go to work.” This grim mentality has plagued Pennington and many others afflicted with PTSD as suicidal thoughts and actions have become a major contributor to the death toll of firefighters and other first responders. “When you report a PTS you’re considered weak and untrustworthy and no longer wanted in the crew you risked your life with, to the point that you should not be there if you’re not there in body, mind and spirit. The work will not and should not tolerate the weakness.” He urges anyone dealing with these thoughts to seek professional help and treatment.

Pennington is now in the process of writing a memoir to help other first responders in similar situations. The book is graphic and dives into the heaviest of content – details from his experiences on the front lines and his life with PTSD.