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Helping the Helpers: N.S. conference raises awareness about first responders’ mental health

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Two hands locked in an embrace are etched in a silver coin that goes everywhere with paramedic John Garth MacDonald.

It’s a reminder that he is never alone -- in good times and in bad.

“If for some reason I come across someone who may need it more than I do today, I’ll hand it to them in a handshake,” said MacDonald in an interview with CTV News.

His organization, Helping the Helpers, which raises awareness about first responders’ mental health, started handing out the coins as part of its annual conference a few years ago.

This Saturday, the 8th annual Helping the Helpers Awareness and Education Day will see roughly 300 first responders and frontline workers who are dealing with PTSD or other psychological workplace injuries, and their families, gather at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., for a day of sharing, education and support.

“It started as a result of myself having a mental health injury due to years of being witness to traumatic events and not having the proper education or training to deal with the aftermath,” said MacDonald, who now works at a medical clinic in Alberta.

He says the spouses and families of first responders dealing with mental health challenges are often “the forgotten ones.” It's why they are now incorporated into the day’s lessons.

“The feedback that I’ve heard from families who attend is feeling a sense of hope, connection, recognizing that they are not alone,” said Matt Beson, an event organizer.

MacDonald says attendance of the conference has grown four-fold since its inception in 2014.

This year, it will feature talks from physicians, psychologists and a variety of first responders and frontline workers – all sharing their expertise on, and experiences with, PTSD and other psychological injuries.

“It’s an invisible injury, people don’t always see it or understand it,” said MacDonald.

To learn more, or register for the Helping the Helpers Awareness and Education Day, you can visit the organization’s website.

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