Fire Chief Opens Up On Living With PTSD
Bernie Van Tighem, who was a firefighter and emergency medical technician for 30 years, talks openly to a crowd of emergency responders at Mannville School on April 11.
Photos Marie Conboy
Bernie Van Tighem shared his story on a life living with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) bravely to a crowd consisting of emergency service personnel including RCMP, local Fire Departments, EMS and their spouses at the Mannville School on April 11.
Like many in the emergency services industry, he dealt with the effects of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress; he sought treatment but received little support, until recently.
Van Tighem talked about his career as a firefighter and emergency medical technician for 30 years.
“What drives me to do these presentations today is because it’s personal to me; I knew two firefighters from BC in 2015 who died by suicide because of PTSD. Another reason why I do this is because PTSD is not dealing with emotions and in therapy I had to go back and re-live and re-feel emotions in order to flush them out of my system, so doing this presentation is a type of exposure therapy.
It’s still really hard for me to say I have mental illness because of the stigma. I have worked with guys who were not impacted on the same calls as me, but yet I am. Essentially it comes down to how you deal with situations,” explained Van Tighem.
It’s common for those with PTSD to suffer nightmares or flashbacks; a symptom is known as 're-experiencing' in which the patient suddenly and vividly re-lives the traumatic event in a repetitive manner.
“I kept having all these dreams of train wrecks. I had attended a horrific train derailment on May 4, 1987, in which two people were roasted alive. I will never forget that night, the fog was as thick as soup and we couldn’t see a thing. We found the railcars were every which way, sideways and on end. There was an intense fire, and I could feel the heat as I left the rescue van, the fire in the ditch appeared to be burning diesel. Then an engineer arrived and said those fateful words, “Are the guys in the truck pinned under the railcar alive?” One man in his seat was still belted in and suspended over the fire, roasted and charred beyond comprehension. The other guy was out of his seat floating in what had been burning diesel, swollen and split like a hot dog and I had to pick up the body pieces. Both occupants had been charred or boiled alive. We placed them and their bits into body bags, and afterward, we went for lunch,” said Van Tighem.
The former fire chief said that his battle with mental-health issues began after this event, but he didn’t realize it at the time.
“In those days we didn’t debrief. We just sucked it up and moved on. I got to the point with my mental health where I couldn’t go to work anymore – then I had to work on myself!
More first responders die by suicide each year in Canada than they do in the line of duty. We need to end the stigma that causes first responders not to want to go and get help!” urged Van Tighem.