TORONTO – At the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) in downtown Toronto, firefighter Paul Atkinson has just finished his weekly meeting with officials.
“We’re not treating this with the respect it deserves,” he says about first responder workplace stress.
Atkinson advocates on the behalf of other firefighters who are suffering from workplace illness, and finds it an uphill battle to convince adjudicators to fund things like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). His colleague, Colin Grieve, a Hamilton firefighter explains it can sometimes take years for the WSIB to recognize and fund mental illness.
“People need help right away, not to be dragged through bureaucracy” Grieve said.
With a shocking number of first responders taking their own lives in recent weeks, there is now more interest in the mental health of those who often put their lives on the line to help others.
READ MORE: First responders speak out on PTSD
Politicians and chiefs all speak about the need for awareness and change, but on the front line there is frustration. Especially in the Toronto Fire Service which lost two members to suicide in a week in July 2013.
Toronto’s Fire Chief Jim Sales has now brought in an outside agency to review the resources available to firefighters on the force. He says everything must be looked at, from collective agreements to the employee assistance programs.
Outside the WSIB, Paul Atkinson points out the disparity between physical and mental injuries on the job. If you hurt your back or knee you have unlimited physiotherapy he says, but if you have serious workplace stress, you are only entitled to $500 for counselling.
READ MORE: 13 first responders, 13 suicides, 10 weeks
A psychologist will go through that amount in two to three sessions says Atkinson.
Cheri Di Novo of the NDP put forward a private members bill earlier this year that would entitle first responders to financial aid immediately, instead of having to wait for a ruling from the WSIB.
Front line responders say they will be watching closely to see if the Ontario government will put some weight behind its words of support.