A hero’s toll
Author Fred Doucette joined the Canadian Forces in 1968.
Over the next 32 years, he served on six missions in places like Cyprus and Bosnia. It was on his second tour of Bosnia, in 1995, that he developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Now, he’s writing about it to raise awareness in the hopes that those suffering will find the help they need. His most recent book, Better Off Dead, shares PTSD survival stories from Canadian Forces members, and looks at its impact on them, their families, and their careers. After Bosnia, it took Doucette five years to start his own recovery, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
“There wasn’t much talk about psychological or mental health injuries due to various missions,” says Doucette, seated at the Atlantica Hotel bar during a visit to Halifax. “I think the only reason I got assessed is because I was out in the field, and my battalion doctor was there.”
After returning from Bosnia, he’d experienced an array of symptoms including anger, nightmares, and an extreme startle response. And he’d frequently lose track of time.
“My wife would worry if I went out for coffee,” says Doucette. “I had no sense of time, so I’d sit there reading a newspaper for two or three hours, and she’d be asking, ‘Where is he? What is he doing?’ She’d get in the car and go looking for me, and I’d get home and go, ‘Oh shit, I didn’t think it was that long.’”
He took his first steps towards getting help while “shooting the breeze” with his battalion doctor. His doctor asked if he’d ever heard the results of a medical questionnaire Doucette completed when he returned from Bosnia in 1996. He said he hadn’t, and the doctor recommended following up.
So he did, and after his file was examined, an appointment was set with a psychologist at the National Defence Medical Centre in Ottawa. It was June 1999 and the appointment was at 2 p.m.
“There I was, a good soldier, waiting there by the door,” says Doucette. “2 p.m. came, then 2:15, then 2:20, 2:40. I’m the only person in the hallway. It’s dead. It looks like a Stephen King novel.”
Eventually, Doucette knocked on the psychologist’s door and was let in. After a couple minutes of silence interspersed with the sounds of flipping documents, the psychologist got right to the point.
“He says to me, ‘So, you wouldn’t be thinking about putting in a claim against the Crown?’ I said, ‘What?’ And then I shut right up there [and] basically said, ‘You’re an asshole,’ and I left. So it was a wasted trip,” says Doucette.
According to Doucette, the experience not only left him feeling discouraged, it also supported his fear that the psychologist was there to protect the Crown—not to help him.
A couple of months later, he explained everything to his battalion doctor, who told him he’d be assessed again. Before long, Doucette was back at the National Defence Medical Centre. He was given an extensive questionnaire to complete, but when he went back the next day for assessment, he was told it was inconclusive.
“And she was right too,” says Doucette. “Because she said, ‘You downplayed a lot of stuff. You’re your own worst enemy. You’ve got to be honest when you’re doing these things.’” In 2002, Doucette was assessed yet again at CFB Halifax’s new Operational Trauma Centre. He was given another, much shorter questionnaire, and this time was diagnosed.
“I went back, saw the psychiatrist, and she said, ‘You have severe chronic PTSD,’” says Doucette. “’Therapy and medication will help, and you’ll get your life back.’ And a third of my recovery was right there. It had a name. It was treatable, and I would get better.”
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, PTSD occurs when people are “exposed to trauma involving death or the threat of death, serious injury, or sexual violence.” Not surprisingly, the association also states that “military personnel, first-responders (police, firefighters, and paramedics), doctors, and nurses experience higher rates of PTSD than other professions.”
Halifax journalist Janice Landry (who occasionally contributes to Halifax Magazine) has spent the last couple of years exploring the link between PTSD and first responders. Her second book, called The Price We Pay, was inspired by her father Basil Landry, a first responder, who received a Medal of Bravery for saving a newborn from a house fire in 1978.
Her first book Sixty Second Story recounts Basil Landry’s heroic rescue. It was while researching her father’s story that Landry realized what mental challenges first-responders face.
“I started to have a lot of frank conversations with a number of responders in different fields, and really started to learn about the impact the work has on them,” says Landry. “I really wanted to shed light on what these people do every day for us, the fact that they’re human, and their work does have an impact on them to varying degrees, depending on the person.”
Unfortunately, many of these people hesitate to reach out for help. In The Price We Pay, Landry tells the story of Vince Savoia, an Ontario paramedic who developed PTSD after being called to the scene of a homicide. The victim, a 25-year-old woman named Tema Conter, reminded Savoia of his fiancée.
Landry also spoke with Halifax general practitioner Dr. Howard Conter, the brother of Tema. When Landry interviewed Dr. Conter, he told her that a number of his PTSD patients have difficulty dealing with their employers.
“Of course, he won’t divulge who those people are because of doctor/patient confidentiality,” says Landry. “But that certainly does exist, where people are afraid to speak out because of losing their jobs, or not getting a job or not getting a promotion. That’s a very real concern, and we read and see accounts of this. So I can see why that would become part of the stigma about speaking out.”
But that shouldn’t be the case, says Landry.
“It’s normal to have a reaction from a horrific experience,” she says “We’re trying to create an environment where people feel supported to talk about it as ethically and responsibly as possible, so they can seek the help they need.”
Trauma Healing Centers, which has five locations, including one in Dartmouth, is an organization that offers help to people with PTSD and other trauma disorders. Trev Bungay, the organization’s vice-president of veterans relations, was released with PTSD in 2014 after 17 years in the armed forces.
“When you get released from the military, you’re kind of thrown to the wolves,” says Bungay. “There is no real place you can go to get help. There is an [Operational Stress Injury] clinic, but you’re looking at anywhere from six to 18 months wait] for one session. And we can’t have those wait times when it comes to mental health.”
The wait period at Trauma Healing Center is about one month. There are other OSI clinics across the country, including one in Dartmouth at 100 Eileen Stubbs Ave. According to Veterans Affairs spokesperson Janice Summerby, “Wait times vary depending on the urgency of the case and the type of mental health professional required.” She declined to provide current wait times.
Books like Better Off Dead and The Price We Pay play an important role in encouraging people with PTSD to get the help they need. By sharing these stories, Doucette and Landry are letting PTSD survivors know they aren’t alone, which is critical because the earlier PTSD survivors seek treatment, the more success they have with their recovery.
“We want to help as many people as we possibly can,” says Bungay. “Military, first-responders, citizens, it doesn’t matter who it is. I’ve been through this, I’ve lost 10 of my own friends to suicide, and we just can’t let this happen anymore. We need to stand up and let these people come in, get them help, get them well, and get them back on their feet.”
Trauma Healing Centers
Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia
Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team
VAC Assistance Service
Telephone counselling and referral service for veterans
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.