Open Mind: Support our protectors

We honour and thank those who put their lives on the line for us, including military personnel, veterans and first responders.

What you see in TV shows and movies doesn’t describe their real experience. They deal with one call after another, often with no time to process or debrief; working long hours, holidays and weekends; sacrificing time with family and friends; constant uncertainty and unpredictability. Danger is part of the job description. 

Statistically, first responders and military personnel are significantly more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than the general population. This makes sense when you think about the trauma they witness, sometimes on a daily basis. 

So what happens when they can’t “un-see” the things they’ve seen?  

Consider the paramedic who responded to a fatal motor vehicle accident and now avoids the intersection of the crash; the correctional officer who was assaulted now feels “on guard” at all times, even at home; the police officer who responded to a homicide now experiences flashbacks to the scene; the corporal who witnessed an IED explosion now has a panic attack every time there is an unexpected loud noise; the firefighter who responded to an apartment fire now feels like the world around them isn’t real.   

You might ask yourself, “How would I know if a friend or family member is dealing with PTSD?”

It isn’t always obvious, especially in people who are trained to perform their duties in the most difficult circumstances. 

As an occupational therapist, I focus on the effects of PTSD on a person’s daily life. Two of the most common things that I’m told about are isolation and avoidance: declining the invitation to go out with friends; steering clear of anything that reminds them of the trauma, including people, places and objects; no longer watching certain TV shows. 

It’s also typical for people to re-experience the trauma through nightmares, unwanted thoughts and images. Poor sleep is very common, along with flashbacks to the traumatic event. This can significantly impact a person’s ability to function throughout the day, sometimes to the point where hours pass and they have no recollection of that time. 

People living with PTSD often report changes in mood and thinking, becoming angry at the drop of a hat; having difficulty remembering information, even if it’s important; the inability to finish a novel because they keep reading the same line over again; a sense of fear, guilt, or shame that doesn’t go away and prevents them from taking pleasure in activities they previously enjoyed; feeling easily startled or prepared to jump into action at any moment, even when off duty. 

You may notice your loved one turning to drugs, alcohol or risky behaviours to cope with the symptoms. They may not understand the changes in themselves, which can lead to low self-esteem because they blame themselves and feel as though they have “failed”, especially if efforts to cope are not working. 

Lastly, PTSD can make a person feel like the world around them isn’t real. They may also feel disconnected from themselves, as if they are watching themselves from a distance. 

So how can you help someone who you suspect is living with PTSD? 

Begin with an open conversation. Really listen to what your loved one is saying. Many people describe social support as the most important factor in their recovery. Asking for help can be particularly difficult because they are viewed as the helpers. Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding PTSD is more common than you might expect, which often prevents people from reaching out. 

Ask what you can do to help. Don’t assume that mowing their lawn or taking them to the theatre is what they need – ask. Encourage your loved one to speak to a healthcare professional if you notice even a few of the signs mentioned above. Finally, take steps to educate yourself and those around you. PTSD is a real mental health disorder that causes real changes in the brain.  

Every time I hear sirens or see flashing lights, I think about the people responding. 

Below are some helpful links:;;; and

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Caitlin LuuVanHiem is an occupational therapist with Homewood Health Centre’s traumatic stress injury and concurrent program.

The “Open Mind” column is sponsored by community partners who are committed to raising awareness about mental health, reducing stigma and providing information about resources that can help. For local mental health resources/information, visit or call 1-844-HERE247.

Caitlin LuuVanHiem