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By Allan Woods, Quebec Bureau
Fri., June 1, 2018
MONTREAL—In Lucie Roy’s retelling, the chain of events that led to her daughter’s suicide began with the burst of gunshots that killed six men and injured five others in a Quebec City mosque in January 2017. [Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, neither a terrorist nor an Islamophobe, had recently been prescribed antidepressants when he acquired a gun and shot at people in a Quebec mosque Jan 29, 2017. See story – SSRI Ed]
Andréanne Leblanc was on shift that Sunday night. She was one of the first paramedics to arrive at the bloody scene that greatly traumatizepostd Canadians.
She and her work partner transported one of the victims to hospital. In the fear and confusion of that frigid winter night, as police hunted the armed and fleeing killer, they were told to prepare in case there were other victims.
Leblanc, 31, didn’t talk to her family about what she had experienced.
That seems to have been part of her nature.
Her grieving mother wants to draw attention to the mental health problems faced by her daughter and other emergency workers who work in difficult or potentially distressing conditions.
A number of medical surveys and studies find paramedics are more vulnerable than other first-responders to job-related trauma.
Dr. Jonathan Douglas, a psychologist from Barrie, Ont., said police and firefighters have similar ways of dealing with the most difficult aspects of their professions.
“They try to push through it. They go back to work and they push through it and they push through it and they push through it, until they can’t push through it anymore. That can be months or years down the line,” he said.
After the mosque shooting, Leblanc and her partner arrived back at the station long after the other paramedics. She missed the initial debriefing during which her colleagues shared what they had experienced and were feeling.
Roy said her daughter had to wait two or three days for a debriefing session that lasted just one hour. If she felt any initial pain, she pushed past it, burying herself in her work. In June, she took an additional job that had her working a seven-day shift in Quebec City, then travelling 350-kilometres to work on-call for seven days in Rimouski.
“After that, it started falling apart,” Roy said in an interview. “When I went to see her in August, I found her to be agitated. She spoke a lot. She was seeing a chiropractor for her back pain, but continued working. I came back again in September, but I found her disorganized and irritable.”
The accumulation led to Leblanc quitting her job as a Quebec City paramedic, but her problems did not recede. Last fall, she had a crisis that led her friends to stage an intervention. She saw a doctor who prescribed a medical leave from work, without giving a formal diagnosis to her problems.
She returned to her childhood home, to stay with her mother in Quebec’s Magdalen Islands. The idea was to rest and relax, but her emotional wellbeing continued to deteriorate. She was upset at not being able to do the job she loved. She broke up with her boyfriend. Her backpain did not alleviate and she began suffering from insomnia.
“After that, she was living with a lot of loss, I think,” Roy said.
She was hospitalized last December, emerging with medication, a psychiatrist to oversee her treatment and a fragile sense of calm.
Leblanc found a job as an attendant in a home for the elderly, transporting and bathing residents. But one day she received a letter that contained “bad news,” the contents of which Roy said she did not wish to share.
“I think it was at that moment that she fell into distress,” she said. “It was like this added to everything she had lost and was suffering from.”
She died the following day, on March 15. After a search, her body was discovered, dressed in her paramedic uniform. Her family also found a note to her family that read, in part: “At least, I saved some lives.”
Leblanc’s psychiatrist told her mother afterward that he was treating her for post-traumatic stress and a professional burnout.
Douglas, whose psychological practice includes a significant number of first-responders, said the “everyday struggle” of their jobs are what often lead to psychological problems for them over the course of a career.
“You’ll get those really, really striking traumatic events like the recent events in Toronto, the (Quebec City) mosque shooting. These are things that would affect virtually anybody,” he said. “But the ones that really do it are those that cross the barrier between the personal and the professional.”
Ontario has had a policy in place since April 2016 that allows first-responders to make claims for post-traumatic stress disorder to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board without having to tie their psychological condition to a specific incident.
But the support and services offered in particular workplaces varies widely.
One of the most active is the paramedic service in York Region, which has a dedicated peer-support and PTSD prevention team. They have working paramedics who are also trained to assist colleagues in difficulty, as well as a dedicated staff member monitoring the paramedic crews to spot those who need help.
“There are some key signs and symptoms and changes in people that you can see, but to be able to see those changes, you have to know them,” said John Anderson, the York Region’s head of peer support and PTSD prevention.
Roy wonders if her daughter would have accepted the help even if it was available to her. Part of it was her mindset; she was convinced she could get better by herself.
But part of it was the stigma.
“When you’re a paramedic, it’s difficult to go seek help, particularly when you don’t have a family doctor,” she said.
“Everyone at the emergency room already knows you; it’s you who takes the injured to the hospital.”