Oak Bay Fire Chief Darren Hughes is proud of the atmosphere he’s helped foster that allows members to have open conversations about mental health. (Kendra Crighton/News Staff)

Mental Health: ‘Choke it down’ mentality now in the past for first responders

Emergency crews implementing programs focusing on self-care

This is the final instalment in a special series on Mental Health in Greater Victoria. Find the entire series online at vicnews.com/tag/mental-health-in-greater-victoria. You can also find Black Press Media’s Mental Health Resource Guide online at vicnews.com/e-editions.

In 1992, 21-year-old Darren Hughes looked around the Oak Bay Fire Department. His brave colleagues were going into burning buildings and saving lives but he was surprised to realize they were all dealing with a multitude of personal problems.

“Our divorce rate was 75 per cent, there were some substance abuse problems at the time,” said Hughes, now chief of the department. “On the job, the functioning of our people was at a very high level but they were really suffering personally.”

The fire department, along with other first responders in Greater Victoria, has undergone a shift recently, bringing the mental health of first responders to the forefront.

READ MORE: Mental Health in Great Victoria

Hughes can recall seeing a video of one of the firefighters he would later work with talk about how he dealt with the mental challenges that came with the job. “‘Choke it down and keep it there’ — those were his specific words and they stick in my mind to this day.”

At the time, firefighters tried to deal with their emotions through “peer diffusers” who would try to get conversations going, but when a really tough call came in, the ride back to the station would usually be in silence.

“It was really hard to open up because everyone was on the verge of breaking down,” Hughes said.

Led by Chief Del Manak, VicPD is working hard to bring the mental health of its members to the forefront. (Don Denton/Black Press Media)

There was a similar attitude on the police force when Victoria Chief Del Manak first started his career.

“Police officers were expected to show up, respond to our call, almost be robotic in nature … and move on to the next,” Manak said.

Both departments now believe mental health is vital not only for the well-being of the first responders but to the communities they serve.

Oak Bay Fire is in the fifth year of a health and wellness program that focuses on mind, body and spirit, while VicPD has entered into Canadian military programs that focus on mental resiliency.

Just recently, VicPD unveiled a revitalization and wellness room at the station, equipped with relaxing music, aquarium and books on mindfulness — one of several initiatives Manak believes will help move the issue of mental health forward.

Manak added the department is also considering having an in-house psychologist who would help normalize having deep meaningful conversations about the trauma first responders experience.

Recently, Oak Bay Fire lost a valued member of their team. Chaplin Ken Gill took his own life in 2018, and while Hughes can’t say for sure Gill would still be here had he had the resources in place now, Hughes believes he would have had the best chance at recovery.

ALSO READ: First responders not prepared enough for the mental traumas

Gill was a shining example of a good person and a strong leader, always willing to lend an ear or grab a coffee to help support those he worked with, Hughes said.

“I knew Ken very well and I would never have suspected that he was having those types of challenges … It’s up to us to make sure we are putting all those processes and education in place so we don’t ever have another situation like we did with Ken.”

Oak Bay Fire Chaplin Ken Gill. (Arnold Lim/Black Press Media)

Sara Wegwitz, the registered nurse behind Oak Bay Fire Department’s health and wellness program, said her main goal is to provide first responders with strategies and tools they can use on a daily basis to maintain a healthy mind.

“We’re all unique beings and [the goal] is to find those positive, proactive things you can do to help shift your perspective and make meaning,” she said. “Then when those big things do happen — personally or professionally — we can better navigate and work through them.”

Wegwitz’s program dives into all aspects of a person’s life, educating the firefighters on sleep, hygiene, nutrition, physical fitness and mindfulness. Guest presenters also help better connect members to resources.

British Columbia’s Emergency Health Services has also gone through a cultural shift and has introduced a critical incident stress program for paramedics. The program has peer supports available 24 hours a day and offers follow-up counselling sessions.

Both Hughes and Manak are proud of the culture they’ve helped cultivate.

“I have people coming into my office now and that feels really good as a fire chief. That I’m able to foster a culture that isn’t afraid to admit that they’ve been to a difficult call because we all recognize now it’s not admitting weakness, it’s about admitting you’ve been to a really tough call,” Hughes explained.

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kendra.crighton@blackpress.ca

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Mental Health in Greater Victoria

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