What happens when the helpers need help?
“911. Do you require police, ambulance or fire?”
Former 911 operator Rae-Lynne Dicks said these words thousands of times during her 10-year career.
She listened to the screams of domestic abuse victims as they cried for her help and the quietly desperate words of sexual assault victims who had been brutally beaten.
She listened to the last words of fire victims waiting to be rescued and she convinced homicide suspects to stay on the phone with her until police arrived to arrest them.
She talked a suicidal man, barricaded in his home, out to safety.
Now living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Dicks will share her experiences in healing and post-traumatic growth at an upcoming symposium on mental health and first responders at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) later this month.
“Too often, first responders, and particularly 911 operators, suffer in silence,” said Dicks, who is also a KPU alumna.
“The point of this conference is to provide a venue at which students, first responders, professionals, faculty, and members of the community can come together to share our knowledge, resources and support one another.”
Connections in First Responder Mental Health is jointly organized by the criminology department at KPU and Badge of Life Canada, a non-profit volunteer organization committed to supporting police and corrections personnel dealing with the psychological injuries suffered in the line of duty.
Badge of Life also has a mandate to advance the public’s understanding of operational stress injuries, including post-traumatic stress and suicide prevention.
“We’re trying to spread awareness of the realities of PTSD; that support and treatment are available, and PTSD does not have to end in suicide,” said Alana Abramson, a criminology instructor at KPU helping to organize the conference.
PTSD increases risks of aggression, self-harm, suicide, depression, anxiety, relationship breakdowns, substance misuse and other health issues.
First responders – 911 operators, police officers, firefighters, paramedics, social workers, emergency room personnel, correctional officers and victims services workers – often suffer in silence with PTSD.
Dicks graduated from the public safety communications program at KPU in 1993 and worked as a 911 operator for 10 years before developing the condition.
Her work took her into the depths of other peoples’ despair until she could no longer hear their stories or function as a human being.
Unable to do the job she loved, Dicks sank into a major depression and was suicidal for two years. She credits her cat, Tomi, for her survival. Tomi refused to leave her alone and set her on the path to healing.
Dicks became a legal secretary before returning to KPU for an associated arts degree in criminology in 2011, and a bachelor of arts degree in 2012.
In addition to being a three-time alumna – four if you count earning her Dogwood diploma through the adult basic education program in 1991 – Dicks remains connected to KPU by returning every semester to share her story with criminology students.
In addition to her personal insight, Dicks, who went on to get a masters degree in criminal justice from the University of the Fraser Valley, will share the results of her 2014 master’s research on PTSD among 911 operators across Canada.
“It is the helplessness of being on the phone, help is on the way, and there is nothing more you can do but listen to a person take their last breath full of smoke, hear them scream as they fall and then hit the water, hear the gunshot from the weapon pointed at their own head, hear the daddy beating mommy as you try to calm the child hiding in the closet and mommy stops screaming because she is unconscious,” wrote Dicks in her work – the first research in Canada on the prevalence of PTSD among Canadian 911 operators.
She surveyed 146 operators, 80.14 per cent of whom reported at least one PTSD symptom. Of those, 43 per cent said they used alcohol or drugs to cope with their symptoms.
“I am absolutely passionate about breaking the silence surrounding mental health and stress-related injuries for first responders and I firmly believe that those of us with lived experience have much to contribute to the conversations and the change of the status quo,” said Dicks.
Connections in First Responder Mental Health is set for Feb. 23-24 at KPU’s Surrey campus, 12666 72 Ave.
The trauma-related experiences and healing journeys of first responders will be shared, along with current research and treatment methods that promote health following trauma.
Tickets are available for one or both days of the conference, ranging from $5 for students for one day, to $150 for professionals for both days. Financial assistance may be available for those who require support to attend.
For more information, including a full schedule of events and to buy tickets and register, visit http://bit.ly/2juWJcQ