• Fri. Jul 1st, 2022

‘We’re not broken beyond repair’: Nova Scotia firefighter creates PTSD support group

ByJulie J. Helfer

Apr 16, 2022

When Derrick Lang started suffering from PTSD after serving in the Royal Canadian Navy, he didn’t know where to turn.

“When I got injured, I was lost,” Lang said. “No one seemed to have an answer for where I should go, what should I do, how should I navigate?”

Lang, now a firefighter with the Hubbards and District Fire Department west of Halifax, wants to use his past struggles to help others. So he started a support group for first responders in Nova Scotia.

The group meets every Friday night on Zoom and is open to veterans, paramedics, firefighters, police officers, correctional officers, or any other first responders who may need support for PTSD.

“We have to support each other,” Lang said. “It’s not just on the pitch, it’s after.”

Lang said while people can share their feelings, it’s not meant to be therapy. One of its main goals is to teach people how to access the care they need.

PTSD is “an injury, just like a broken ankle,” he said. “You heal from injury, if you get the right support. And we just try to provide that and align people with connections.

“We are not broken beyond repair. And people need to feel that deep inside.”

Care-seeking can re-traumatize

Lang thinks his own experiences make him a great person others can turn to when they need help.

In the late 1980s he was injured on HMCS Margaree. Her PTSD started a few days after the accident and the symptoms worsened for years. In 2012, after being injured again, Lang was finally diagnosed with complex PTSD.

But the journey did not end there.

Before getting the care he needed, Lang said his relationships with his children, friends and colleagues suffered. His entrepreneurial career ended because he couldn’t leave his house without having flashbacks.

It was “really difficult to find someone qualified enough to help me in a way that I needed help, because of the intense trauma I had been through,” he said.

He said even trying to apply for insurance coverage for care could be traumatic again, as his case often didn’t fit their specific mold.

Then Lang said the Department of Veterans Affairs “stepped in” and helped him access the psychological treatment he needed. He participated in a program with the Veterans Transition Network, a charity that provides mental health services specifically to veterans across Canada.

“It completely changed my life,” Lang said. “I’m resilient, it’s true, and most firefighters and first responders are… [Now] I know how to sail and I just want to pass it on to other people.”

Last March, he approached fellow firefighter Rachael Dent-Flynn to start a support group. She said she was on board right away.

Rachael Dent-Flynn says many first responders don’t feel comfortable addressing issues like PTSD at work, so the group provides a much-needed outlet. (Submitted by Rachael Dent-Flynn)

“It’s no secret that there is a breakdown in our mental health system, and there are a lot of people who have felt it firsthand and had nowhere to go and no support. “Dent-Flynn said. “So if we can be that catch-all and helper in times like these, that’s hope.”

She said when someone is in a dark place with their illness, the last thing they can think about is seeking new treatments and programs.

Another stigma

Dent-Flynn said the response to the first two meetings has been overwhelmingly positive. She said many first responders don’t feel comfortable addressing issues like PTSD at work, so the group provides a much-needed outlet.

“Even though it’s 2022, there’s still a huge stigma associated with it due to lack of education and awareness,” she said.

Dent-Flynn and Lang hope the Nova Scotia support group will be a starting point for similar groups that can work with first responders in every province. Lang said anyone interested in learning more or joining the group can contact him through Facebook.

“We don’t know what it’s going to turn into,” Lang said. “But I want it to be done in a way that people are like, ‘Hey, somebody understands me. I feel safe in this.'”