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Stressing the need for help

Michael Swainson is a post-traumatic stress junkie. The Yukoner even wears a button that says "JFU," for "Just F__ked Up." It took the former paramedic 21 years to admit his job was taking a psychological toll.

Michael Swainson is a post-traumatic stress junkie.

The Yukoner even wears a button that says “JFU,” for “Just F__ked Up.”

It took the former paramedic 21 years to admit his job was taking a psychological toll.

But now, after a year of trauma workshops at centres as far away as San Diego and Reno, Swainson can’t get enough.

After his first post-traumatic retreat - at a centre in California that only works with paramedics and first responders - Swainson signed up for the next course, a peer-support program that would see him working with paramedics like himself, who were coming to the centre for the first time.

And he didn’t stop there.

“I’ve taken individual crisis intervention, group crisis intervention, first responder peer support and psychological first aid,” he said.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

After another course in San Diego, Swainson was booked into a critical-incident-stress-management-for-disasters course in Reno.

But just days before the conference, he found out his instructors had gone to Haiti to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake that had just rocked the island.

Swainson called the Reno conference and a woman told him it was offering three other workshops instead: psychological first aid.

“I’d done that,” said Swainson.

Or individual crisis intervention and peer support.

“I’d done that too,” he said.

Swainson had already paid for his plane tickets, hotel room and rental car, so he crossed his fingers and listened to his last option -“pastoral crisis intervention.”

There was a long pause on the phone.

Then, Swainson bit the bullet.

“Well God bless you sister, I’ll see you in Reno,” he said.

Swainson has always believed in God.

But he doesn’t go to church.

And pastor training is not something he’d considered even in his wildest dreams.

The Reno course was run by an ordained minister and police chaplain from South Carolina.

There were 15 students in the class.

“Fourteen chaplains and me,” said Swainson.

Despite his initial hesitation, Swainson loved the training.

Back in Whitehorse, surfing the net, he found more police and fire chaplain training in Seattle, and signed up.

In October, Swainson graduated as a chaplain.

But he plans to keep the religion in the background.

“If your brother is killed in an accident, it’s not the time for me to ask you if you read the Bible,” he said.

Back in the Yukon, Swainson wants to help first responders struggling with the stress of their jobs.

And his 21 years with Whitehorse’s emergency services is an asset, “because I can say, ‘I’ve been there, I’ve seen that,’” he said.

Studying to be a paramedic, they teach you how to start IVs and use the Jaws of Life, he said.

“But they don’t teach you how to deal with the most horrendously awful stuff you’re going to see.”

The call that pushed Swainson over the edge came in during the Canada Winter Games several years ago.

A teenager had been killed on a snowmachine near the Takhini Hot Springs Road.

The boy was 16, the same age as Swainson’s sons, who also use snowmobiles.

And it hit close to home.

After especially bad calls, the crews go through a debriefing.

But after that, there’s no followup, said Swainson.

At work, first responders operate at a very high level, he said.

They have to, in order to keep themselves and their patients safe.

But at the end of the day, instead of dropping down to a normal functioning level, first responders often plummet, said Swainson.

Divorce rates are high, he said.

“In some departments, as high as 89 per cent.”

After a bad day, Swainson found himself sitting in his chair and channel surfing.

“You don’t want to do stuff with your wife and kids,” he said.

At his worst, Swainson considered it a small victory if he got out of bed and put his shoes on.

“I just wanted to lie there with the covers over my head,” he said.

Now Swainson, who works a government desk job, wants to help his comrades get out of bed.

Since he took his first peer-support workshop a year ago, Swainson has already fielded eight calls from Yukon first responders who needed support.

Some of those calls came from the communities.

If there’s an accident in a small community, like a kid dying on an ATV, everyone will likely know that person, including the volunteer ambulance attendants, he said.

About four year ago, when this happened in Carmacks, there was a debriefing for the first responders who attended the scene.

But it was a one-time thing, said Swainson.

“There needs to be more followup.”

Swainson has already contacted the president of the Yukon Fire Chiefs Association and is now its chaplain.

It is tough to ask for help, said Swainson.

Ego can get in the way, he said.

“It did for me.”

Swainson is still seeing a counsellor every few weeks and is still taking medication for his post-traumatic stress.

Now, he’s hoping others will open up and seek help if they need it.

“My number’s in the phone book,” he said.

Contact Genesee Keevil at