13 first responders, 13 suicides, 10 weeks

Watch above: Ontario eyes new protections for frontline responders. Alan Carter reports. 

TORONTO – Two more of Canada’s first responders killed themselves this week, bringing the total number of suicides by Canadian paramedics, firefighters, police officers, dispatchers and prison staff to 13 in roughly ten weeks.

Nancy Nadeau, a police officer in the Quebec city of Levis, killed herself with her own service weapon on Tuesday, according to Le Journal de Quebec.

And an unidentified police officer in Ontario killed themselves overnight, according to Vince Savoia, the founder of the Tema Conter Memorial Trust.

The revelations come as Ontario’s government tries to figure out what public institutions can do to address post-traumatic stress disorder and mental illness among Canadians whose job it is to charge toward violent, traumatic situations when everyone else runs the other way.

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Canada’s suicide rate was about 10.8 per 100,000 in 2011, according to Statistics Canada. That year, a total of 3,728 Canadians of all ages killed themselves.

But in 2011 it was the second-leading cause of death for young adults: 544 Canadians aged 25 to 34 killed themselves in 2011 – more than five times the number killed by someone else.

The vast majority of suicides for which an underlying cause can be identified are connected to mental illness.

“It is a shocking number and I think as a society we’re just starting to come to grips with this issue,” said Labour Minister Kevin Flynn. “We’re starting to talk about it in a way involving our first responders, involving the armed forces. We’re starting to talk about it in a way we should have talked about in the past.”

READ MORE: How to get help if you or someone you know has PTSD

Flynn said the government has been consulting with the Workplace Safety and Inspection Board and the broader community of first responders for nearly two years and has just finished a report on the issue.

The report’s top priorities? Education and prevention.

“Prevention is very, very important, that we need to treat this more seriously and we need a broader dialogue than this,” Flynn said.

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But Toronto Paramedics Association President Geoff MacBride says the province could start by making it easier for first responders to get benefits from WSIB.

Right now, first responders suffering from PTSD have to prove their symptoms are the reason they can’t work. But a bill introduced by NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo seeks to delete that requirement.

MacBride says the burden of proof prevents paramedics from coming forward with their problems.

“This stuff comes from the work that we do and there should be policy and procedures in place to allow the personnel who are dealing with these things to access resources,” he said in an interview Thursday.

Toronto Emergency Medical Services has a psychologist on staff leading a team trained to deal with PTSD, crisis intervention and steering affected people toward the right resources.

MacBride said frontline staff can also help themselves and assume some of the responsibility of helping their colleagues.

“As the stigma of this ailment continues to be lifted, we’re seeing more and more engagement from all levels. But I would suggest the most important level is your colleagues,” he said.

“If we can’t turn to each other for support, I certainly can’t imagine how turning to someone how is in a different echelon of the organization can be more helpful.”

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READ MORE: Is there enough mental health support for first responders?

Toronto Police Association President Mike McCormack says five Toronto police officers have killed themselves in the last 20 years.

The Toronto Police Service has a number of resources for employees, McCormack said, including two psychologists, employee assistance programs, and benefits for private help should  employees choose that over in-house staff.

The police service also puts its officers through annual training to deal with situations where mental illness is a factor.

The biggest problem, he said, is dispelling the notion that first responders are immune to mental illness.

“There has been a historical stigma attached to not only PTSD but mental health issues. And in the policing community there has been a historical reluctance to come forward for the fear of being judged or pigeonholed because of these type of illnesses,” he said.

But, McCormack pointed out, some of the police officers who have killed themselves in Toronto were getting treatment.

“It’s not that [there has] been a defect in getting assistance,” he said. “We’re trying to make the system perfect but it will never be perfect. There will always be people that you cannot prevent from doing this.”
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Toronto Fire Services refused to comment on this story, citing a lack of time.

 – With files from Alan Carter and Laura Zilke

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