Crim Department Hosts Conference to Break Silence on PTSD

Former 911 operator and KPU alumnus Rae-Lynn Dicks no longer suffers in silence
Neil Bassan, Contributor

BC  pays tribute to fallen Firefighters

A firefighter pays tribute at the 2017 Fallen Firefighters’ Memorial on Mar. 6, 2017. (Province of British Columbia/Flickr)

Having been diagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder in 2002, Former 911 operator and KPU alumnus Rae-Lynn Dicks was invited to speak at the Connections in First Responder Mental Health conference on Feb. 23 and 24. The symposium was a joint effort between the Criminology department at KPU and Badge of Life Canada, a non-profit organization that supports the mental health of police and corrections professionals.

Dicks’s presence as a speaker and panelist was meant to bring the realities of PTSD into focus, specifically for first responders such as 911 communications operators, firefighters, paramedics, law enforcement, and correctional officers, among others. It also served as a way to reach out to KPU students and begin a conversation about pain and trauma.

“The purpose of bringing this out into the open is to educate students at Kwantlen [on] how to take care of themselves, how to be aware of who they are, and on the impact of exposure to trauma,” says Dicks. “Rather than eat our own, we need to be taking care of our own.”

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, PTSD is a mental illness that involves overwhelming exposure, firsthand or otherwise, to a traumatic and frightening event including sexual violence, the threat of death and serious injury, war and conflict, or a natural disaster. The symptoms of PTSD cause a re-experiencing of trauma, and many people, most notably first responders—who experience higher rates of PTSD than other professions—suffer from vivid flashbacks or night terrors. Ultimately, victims of PTSD can develop feelings of numbness with respect to their emotions, fall into depression, or feel disconnected from reality.

Dicks, who survived a suicide attempt and went on to complete a Master of Arts degree in Criminal Justice from the University of the Fraser Valley, is now committed to sharing her lived experiences so that mental health be prioritized for victims of trauma.

“Prevention through education is where it starts,” says Dicks. “When a trauma or operational stress injury starts to develop in the early stages, you can get therapy and utilize resources so it doesn’t develop into PTSD.”

KPU Criminology instructor Alana Abramson, who helped in organizing and facilitating the symposium, sees students as the greatest potential benefactors of the conference. She argues that Criminology education at KPU ought to be holistic, and that hearing a multitude of voices is useful for students.

“So many of our students have a desire to go into policing one day,” says Abramson. “I really wanted the students to learn directly from people in the field to prevent burnout, trauma, and mental health issues associated with the field.”

Secretary of the prison justice club at KPU, Salehah Hakik, who also volunteered as support staff at the conference, also sees PTSD as a worthwhile topic to explore.

“We are seeing a lot more mental health initiatives taking place in police organizations,” she says. “Putting our time and effort into a cause like this is really important so we can raise awareness of mental disorders in first responders.”

Abramson looks forward to students being a catalysts for social change when it comes to policing and mental health.

“Change needs to happen at the individual level, the institutional level, and at the policy level, so that we can prevent and address mental health, operational stress, and PTSD,” says Abramson. “If students know this, then they are better equipped to make changes as they enter the workplace.”

Abramson adds that, while dialogue is key to first responders’ mental well-being, it helps improve people’s mental health more generally as well.

“We all encounter difficulty and stress, and even trauma, in our lives, but if we don’t have a place to talk about it and get support, then it festers and becomes debilitating,” she says.

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