Have you ever wondered why many television police dramas depict deeply conflicted detectives and other first responders as divorced and alienated from their families; alcohol or drug dependent-even suicidal? It’s not just for the ratings. During and after 9/11 the public was suddenly thrust into the world of first responders when police, firefighters and paramedics had the harrowing task of searching for survivors and losing colleagues while doing so. Many are still suffering from PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder, and the stigmas associated with it.
“Honestly, until I started to work on this documentary, I really gave little thought to the first responders. I think most of us are always focused on the victims,” admits producer/director, Karen Shopsowitz ruminating on The Other Side of the Hero airing Friday, June 2nd at 7:00 p.m. on CBC’s digital Documentary Channel.
Skyping from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, Shopsowitz and producer, actor and doc interviewer, Enrico Colantoni are premiering The Other Side of the Hero, at Mount Saint Vincent University for the Tema Conter Memorial Trust. Colantoni, who played a police officer on the hit TV-series, Flashpoint, is also an international ambassador for TEMA, a registered charitable Canadian organization that provides peer support, family assistance and training for men and women coping with the aftermath of traumatic situations.
Five years in the making, the 90-minute documentary cleverly contrasts interviews with actors who play first responders in popular TV-series like Criminal Minds’ Paget Brewster, Joe Mantegna, and Alimi Ballard, with real-life heroes.
“What struck me the most while we were shooting in LA, is that all the actors said that people actually come up to them thinking they had really saved people! As actors, we feel a vicarious sense of responsibility, but I can’t imagine the stress that a police officer feels over a 20-year career,” Colantoni says. “The real heroes are the first responders that have to go through this stress day in and day out,” he explains. “On the flip side, as an actor, you get so into a role, I remember having a dream and when I woke up, thinking ‘if I had only acted better, I could have saved the girl.’”
Did you know that paramedics have the highest suicide rate amongst first responders? The Other Side of the Hero unmasks the hero to expose the human being beneath the façade. With an empathetic lens but without sugar coating the men and women who choose these high-risk occupations, their stories are simply, often tearfully re-told.
But the viewer doesn’t feel manipulated by these confessional interviews. Vince Savoia, a former paramedic in Toronto, (now a spokesperson and advocate for TEMA,) is still haunted by the experience of attending to a 1988 homicide of a young girl, Tema Conter (for whom the Halifax Memorial Trust was created.) Lisa Rouse, a former 911 dispatcher says “she felt guilty for weeks, afraid that colleagues would be angry with her” following the gunning down of three Mounted Police Officers she dispatched to an incident. Spouses of firefighters confess their frustration when their spouse won’t talk about the job when they get home. Policewomen are still warned to “suck it up” by male colleagues while a male paramedic was told by a superior that he was “an embarrassment to the uniform” because he asked for help. Even a police chief who volunteered after the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, suffered for years from PTSD before seeking help.
But what all the first responders have in common is the same fighting spirit to get well that made them excel in their jobs in the first place. Many have also found solace through painting, horseback riding and writing music to express their emotions.
In regard to how mental health and PTSD is perceived by society today, “It’s slowly changing, says Savoia. “We definitely need a culture change, not only from the top down but from the bottom up including men and women in the field who still maintain those stereotypes.”
TOP PHOTO: Firefighters, photo by Steve Garnett