Surrey Coun. Mike Starchuk is working to ensure proper follow up for those suffering form PTSD.

Beyond the breaking point

A Surrey councillor wants better follow-up care for people who develop stress disorders on the job

His long career as a firefighter in North Surrey hit a rocky patch in 2005 when he responded to events so psychologically traumatic, they left lasting damage.

As the truism goes, some things just can’t be unseen.

The firefighter started exhibiting early signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), becoming increasingly agitated and having trouble sleeping. His love of hockey and working out all but disappeared.

His symptoms worsened dramatically when he answered a call involving a teen who was murdered.

Emotionally pummeled by the incident, he still toughed it out for five more years. But the stress continued to build, call after call, until he had to take a medical leave in 2010.

On his later return, he became a junior captain, and he worked to change the way his fellow firefighters dealt with stress, encouraging them to speak out.

And management, he said, had to tune into the problem.

“The people leading us, they’re the ones that have to step up and show compassion,” he is quoted as saying. “Lead differently. (Your people) are your tools. And you’ve got to take care of your tools.”

Prior to his return to work, the junior captain was treated by mental health specialists and was cleared.

Unfortunately, there was no follow-up care to make sure the stressors hadn’t returned.

On March 3 of this year, he took his own life. He was 53.

(Out of respect for the firefighter and his family, The Leader has chosen not to identify him).

The tragedy struck home for a new Surrey city councillor, who is vowing to take up the cause of mental health and PTSD.

Coun. Mike Starchuk, also a former firefighter, writes about the firefighter on his blog.

“From the time he was recognized by (WorkSafeBC) for his PTSD… to his last days on earth, there weren’t any (WorkSafe) policies or mechanisms in place to follow up on (his) mental health challenges,” Starchuk says.

Starchuk knows of what he speaks.

He worked as a “Critical Incident Scene Management peer defuser” with Surrey Fire Services, helping others with PTSD.

The late firefighter was one of them; there are currently five others with the diagnosis he knows of in this province. He figures the real number could be as high as 25 firefighters in B.C. grappling with PTSD.

He couldn’t say exactly how many firefighters in Surrey have been diagnosed with the disorder.

WorkSafeBC has made some progress in addressing the issue, Starchuk says, but more needs to be done.

On July 1, 2012, WorkSafeBC created better criteria recognizing what first responders, such as firefighters, face in the field.

However regular follow-up care needs to take place to help prevent what happened to the junior captain from happening to anyone else.

Starchuk says he’s waiting to hear from the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) – the provincial body representing firefighters that is lobbying WorkSafeBC for improved care.

Starchuk stands ready to use his position as city councillor to affect meaningful change for workers dealing with PTSD.

And not just firefighters, he says.

It could be police, paramedics or anyone suffering PTSD in another workplace.

“We’re not asking for a whole lot,” Starchuk says, adding he wants someone to check in with the affected persons.

“I just want the professionals to decide what level of follow-up that is.”

Inaction, he says, is simply too costly.