Watch above: Disturbing new numbers indicate high rates of suicide among first responders suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Sean Mallen reports
TORONTO – What are government officials doing to stop first responders from killing themselves.
Well, the Ontario government has a report it’s finalizing and may be ready for release in the next few weeks – about two years after the roundtable on job-related PTSD was first announced.
Meantime, two more of Canada’s first responders have killed themselves in the last five days, bringing the total of those who’ve taken their own lives to 15 since May.
One was a correctional officer in Ontario; the other, an Edmonton firefighter.
“We, first of all, recognize the hard work that our correctional officers do in our detention centres day in and day out and it is a very difficult circumstance that they’re working in, as well,”
Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Yasir Naqvi said in an interview Tuesday.
“We have programs in place to assist our officers if they are part of an incident that could cause a post-traumatic stress disorder type of situation. I can also tell you that the ministry of labour has been working very closely with the WSIB on this issue.”
The ministry of labour launched a roundtable in September, 2012 focusing on how to deal with work-related PTSD and mental illness.
At the time, mental illness accounted for about 30 per cent of all disability claims in the province.
“This conversation will build greater awareness and understanding of current best practices in dealing with post-traumatic mental stress,” then-minister Linda Jeffrey said in a statement.
“It will support healthy workplaces as well as hard working Ontarians who are in occupations or workplaces more likely to expose them to traumatic events.”
Naqvi replaced Jeffrey earlier this year, when she resigned to run for Brampton mayor in October’s election. Kevin Flynn replaced Naqvi on the Labour file after the June 12 election.
These most recent suicides have brought the issue of trauma and mental illness among police, firefighters, paramedics, 911 dispatchers, correctional officers and soldiers back to the fore.
Naqvi said the 15 suicides are “disturbing” and highlight the need to take “concrete actions” to recognize and prevent mental illness.
“That’s why the work the minister of labour is doing along with WSIB in terms of prevention and recognition and proper treatment and best practices, is important work,” Naqvi said, referring to the study.
A heavier mental burden?
Are emergency workers more likely to kill themselves than people in other professions?
Hard to say.
But existing research does indicate that Canada’s first responders struggle with mental illness at a greater rate than the general population, says Dr. Jeff Morley, a clinical psychologist 23-year veteran of the RCMP.
“If, for example, lifetime prevalence of PTSD in the general population is five to eight per cent, in first responders, it’s, depending on the study you looked at, 16 to 25 per cent,” he said.
Rates among each profession within the category of first responders don’t vary much, Morley said.
A person can be diagnosed with PTSD after just one traumatic experience; first responders might see hundreds throughout their career.
“But when you look at first responders, police, they could face hundreds in the course of a career. So it’s no surprise that the rates are higher,” Morley said.
“Given the sometimes hundreds of exposures to traumatic events that first responders face, you know, I actually think that rates are relatively decent. I mean overall, we’re a pretty resilient bunch, given what we go through.”
The exact number of first responders in Canada is difficult to measure: it’s a large group encompassing hundreds of thousands of employees and several thousand volunteers.
But labour force data from Statistics Canada suggests there are roughly 249,500 “protective services” in Canada in 2013. Those workers took more disability days than the total of all other occupations with the exception of health care workers and childcare/home support workers.
There’s an increased emphasis on more education and resources needed for first responders, their colleagues and managers. But Morley said an oft-forgotten component of fighting PTSD and suicide is connecting with families.
“Families are often the barometers for what’s going on for the responder,” he said. “They’re the ones that notice the changes, the depression, the irritability, the anger, the disconnection. So I think there also needs to be education and support for the family member.”
He also often hears of lacklustre resources for current first responders and suggests ongoing training and on-the-job education on PTSD and mental health every few months is important.
“I think some people do get a quick briefing, you know, when they graduate from the academy, but there’s nothing after,” he said. “So one of the things I’m encouraging organizations to do is keep it on the radar screen, have ongoing assessments, self-assessments, have ongoing education programs, so it’s on the screen as it develops.”
But first responders sometimes – wrongly, experts argue – pride themselves on being tough and immune to the trauma they witness each day. Sufferers of PTSD have told Global News the stigma attached to PTSD is the number-one obstacle in combating the diagnosis.
Morley suggested a staff psychologist – someone who knows “the culture” of first responders – would be better suited to relate to their patients.
But often, especially in remote communities, the resources simply aren’t there.
“I still think that in a place like Vancouver or Toronto, there’s a fair number of experienced trauma psychologists,” he said. “But in many communities, especially smaller ones, responders may be at the mercy of whatever helper or program is out there and I think there is some unique perspectives to emergency response work.”
A paper Morley wrote in 2010 paints a startling picture of the effect police work has on mental health:
- 11 per cent reported suicidal thoughts as a result of the job
- Seven to nine per cent suffered PTSD
- 33 per cent were diagnosed with partial PTSD
- 74 per cent of reported having recurring memories of work-related incidents
- 54 per cent actively avoided reminders of a workplace incident
- 54 per cent reported “often” feeling physically, emotionally or spiritually depleted
- 88 per cent said work affected their families
- With files from Sean Mallen