Tyler Anstey depended on peer support, even as he was training to become a support group facilitator.
Anstey was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder in May 2017, after a decade and a half of police work in Halifax began to take its toll. He completed various forms of treatment, and decided to train as a group facilitator to bring the peer group to Halifax.
It wasn’t easy. One day during a training session he broke down crying and had to leave the room.
“Another member came and sat with me and said ‘I don’t know what to say to you, I don’t know how to help, but I just knew that I didn’t want you to be here by yourself.’ And that, in its most simple, purest form, is peer support,” he said in a recent phone interview.
He recently completed his training and is launching the Gr8ful Warrior support group in Halifax this week. Designed to help other first responders and corrections officers who might be struggling, the group is an extension of the Project Trauma Support organization in Perth, Ont.
Among Project Trauma Support’s activities are a weeklong retreat for first responders and military with PTSD. There are also weekly support groups across the country with alumni and current participants.
Two fateful nights
During Hurricane Juan in 2003, Anstey witnessed the death of paramedic John Rossiter when a tree fell onto his ambulance. Anstey and his partner were parked directly in front of the ambulance Rossiter was in. “We happened to be waving to them. We both saw the tree fall. I was the first person into the back of the ambulance with John,” he said.
The next night he responded to a house fire that killed a woman and her two children. Due to the hurricane, body removal service wasn’t available. Anstey and the paramedics had to put the deceased into body bags and ride with them away from the scene in the ambulance.
He considers those two nights the most trying of his life.
“I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing what I had seen both outside and inside the ambulance,” he said. “Nightmares began and then that kind of amplified the following night after the house fire.”
The Perth farm
Anstey didn’t take any time off. He kept working, responding to calls that ranged from homicides and suicides to emotionally charged domestic disputes.
“I thought I was managing them to the best of my ability, and then I wasn’t,” he said.
He tried to take care of himself, doing things like exercising and keeping a journal, but it wasn’t enough. His symptoms worsened. He was crying often, had trouble sleeping and had thoughts of suicide.
One day he asked a friend to drive him to the hospital. He was diagnosed with complex PTSD, went off work and began seeing a psychologist. He soon found himself at the Project Trauma Support farm in Perth, taking part in their residential experiential treatment program.
“It was the first time that I had been surrounded by a group of people where I could look at it and say, ‘hey, I’m not the first person who’s going through this,’” he said.
Healing heart and soul
Dr. Manuela Joannou started Project Trauma Support peer groups to create a PTSD therapy that pays special attention to the social isolation of sufferers.
“There’s so much more to the injury than just the symptoms that get labeled as being those that are accompanying a diagnosis of PTSD,” she said by phone Tuesday. “We recognize moral injury as being more of an injury to a person’s heart and soul.”
A moral injury occurs when someone has to do something that conflicts with their personal values. For example, peacekeepers might have to stand by and let violence take place because their orders are to not engage, or a paramedic might be called to the scene of a shooting and have to treat the gunman.
Joannou said Project Trauma Support’s peer support groups can make a huge difference in the lives of PTSD patients.
“We always find that people will get a piece of a puzzle, maybe from their own story, maybe a bad call … sometimes they’ll meet someone else who has another piece of that same story, and it just makes everything fall into place for them,” she said.
She said socializing within the groups is also very important for recovery, especially for those who were isolated before.
“The biggest piece is that you have people looking out for you,” he said.
Bringing the group home
Anstey says he learned a lot about being resourceful from his time in Perth, which is why he decided to start a group in Halifax.
“There’s some great programs out there, but there’s room for more,” he said.
Gr8ful Warrior will have weekly meetings where participants can anonymously share stories, spread word of different resources, or just sit and listen. It’s open to any first responders, military members, corrections officers, or those who do similar work, with or without a PTSD diagnosis. The meetings are entirely confidential.
“No one will ever be turned away,” said Anstey.
He’s hoping this week’s launch is the first step in developing a larger community.
“I hope that I throw a snowball that is this peer support meeting,” he said. “I hope that snowball hits snow and continues to build, and once it’s left my hand it takes on its own identity.”
Both Anstey and Joannou say the group is not a substitute for psychotherapy or seeing a psychiatrist. It’s also not meant for people in immediate crisis.
The first Gr8ful Warrior meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at the Hilton Garden Inn, near the Halifax airport.
If you are suffering a mental health crisis the Mental Health Mobile Crisis Telephone Line can be reached 24/7 at (902)-429-8167 or 1-888-429-8167.