ANTIGONISH: After a year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the seventh annual Helping the Helpers Awareness Education Day for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is scheduled for Sept. 11 at StFX.
The day is designed to provide awareness and education; coping strategies and support for first responders, allied frontline professionals and their families who are impacted by or at risk for psychological workplace injuries such as Occupational Stress Injury (OSI) or PTSD.
Committee Chair John Garth MacDonald indicated he is hopeful the conference will provide both the friendship and support that everyone values so much.
“We are thrilled to be able to offer the Helping the Helpers Conference in person this year,” MacDonald told The Reporter. “We know that many of our first responders are feeling the added strain brought on not only by the pandemic but also by the heartbreaking losses we have experienced this past year.”
The day started back in 2014, he said as a result of his personal injury that occurred on a typical winter’s day in 2010.
Tanya Snow-Keeling, who said MacDonald taught her so many life lessons and provided continued support on her journey to become an advance care paramedic, said as a paramedic they help people every day, so she wanted to help her mentor.
“It was at that moment I decided there isn’t enough talk and awareness about this awful disorder or OSI in general that affects even the most veteran and strong paramedics,” Snow wrote in a memoir. “This education day is to show as many people as I can that there is life after a diagnosis. People are able to return to work with this illness and live each day with fewer symptoms, through counselling, resiliency skills and support.”
This year’s program will be co-facilitated by Starr Cunningham, president and CEO of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia and Janice Landry, an author and journalist and will feature presentations, stories and lived experiences from first responders, clinical specialists and front-line workers and spouses.
“The program is designed to dispel the myths and breakdown the stigma connected to PTSD,” MacDonald said. “It’s really important people know they can come to an education awareness day that is a safe environment and is stigma-free. Everybody needs to know it’s okay to not be okay.”
As the Helping the Helpers approaches their seventh conference, he said they’ve come a long way from the inaugural event hosted in Port Hawkesbury that only saw 74 people in attendance, which now is a sell-out capacity of 300 at StFX University.
Explaining what a typical event looks like, MacDonald advised over the years, they’ve had first responders share their lived experiences of living with PTSD, family members or partners of first responders detail their lived experiences of living with someone with PTSD, children of first responders give their stories, and there are also health care professionals such as psychologists, counsellors and psychiatrists in attendance.
“We’ve had a broad scope of people with lots of education and lived experience speak at our days,” he said. “This year is the first year that we’re going to have a spousal panel; it’s been something that’s been asked for over the last couple years from the surveys.”
Snow-Keeling advised she feels an overwhelming obligation to continue with the Helping the Helpers education day, as her mentor provided many lessons in paramedicine that she now shares with others new to this profession.
“One of the most important lessons has been that we need to support each other, we need to be open about talking about mental health within our profession, and we need to be able to pick each other up when our mentors fall,” she said. “The Helping the Helpers education day was my way of starting this process. John Garth is still an important part of my life and continues to be my mentor. He is a great inspiration to me and others as he now talks about his struggles with PTSD and how he lives with it every day.”