Report: Ontario makes PTSD an occupational illness for first responders after series of suicides

FEB 19 2016, Toronto CANADA

The Ontario government yesterday introduced legislation to help paramedics and other first responders who are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Promoting Ontario’s First Responders Act, if passed, will amend existing legislation to create a presumption that first responders diagnosed with PTSD have a work-related illness. This will allow first responders to more quickly access benefits and treatment and hopefully prevent catastrophes like divorce and suicide amongst front-line caregivers.

Paramedics crowded the Ontario Legislature ahead of the announcement, and some cried as the legislation was tabled. “Given all that we ask of our first responders it is only fair that we support them when they need us most” said Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn, adding claims will be allowed up to 24 months after the diagnosis instead of the usual 6.

For Natalie Harris, a paramedic and PTSD survivor, the moment was many years coming. After responding to a scene in 2012 where two women were murdered, Harris became depressed and required hospitalization for addiction and PTSD. “It’s life-changing” says Harris of the new legislation, while acknowledging it’s “gutwrenching as we all remembered those peers we have already lost.”  Harris, a PTSD advocate, credits “how powerful collective, passionate voices can be.”

Ontario Paramedic Association president Geoff McBride was in the legislature at the time of the announcement. “It is no secret that first responder have a higher incidence of PTSD and we must take the proper steps to prevent and treat those that need it” he said, supporting the actions of the government. “We are pleased to see this type of legislation announced in Ontario and hope that other jurisdictions will follow suit” added Chris Hood, president of the Paramedic Association of Canada. Albert and Manitoba have similar legislation, and Nova Scotia is considering presumptive causation legislation. That makes Ontario the third province in Canada to recognize PTSD as a workplace illness.

MPP Cheri DiNovo of the New Democratic Party has been fighting for presumptive causation legislation for 7 years. After tabling 4 bills, one of which made it to second reading, she’s pleased the government is acting, claiming “victory” for first responders. On the eve of the government’s bill being introduced, DiNovo, whose own Bill 2 called for PTSD support, rose to address the Legislature, saying “this is a disorder that has taken the lives of… almost 100” and she implored the government to “make PTSD a workplace injury… do it now.” After the legislation was announced, DiNovo said she was “delighted,” adding “we will be looking for amendments to cover those who already have PTSD.”

The proposed legislation covers police officers, firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, correctional officers, and 911 dispatchers and includes claims currently under appeal. It also requires EMS employers to implement and publish plans to prevent PTSD.

Some Ontario EMS Chiefs didn’t wait for legislation to proactively address the epidemic of first responder suicides that have recently been reported in the media. York Region Paramedic Chief Norm Barrette has been addressing mental health stigma amongst his paramedics for years. “York Region Paramedic Services has a wide variety of supports in place for paramedics dealing with operational stress” says Barrette. Launched recently, the York Peer Support Team includes 20 paramedics nominated by their peers with special training provided by the Tema Conter Memorial Trust are on call 24/7. Staff have recently been trained in additional supports that are available, including reimbursement for private psychological counselling, confidential access to municipally-funded counsellors, and immediate post-event debriefings.

Vince Savoia is the director of the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, and for years has been tracking first responder suicides and advocating for change. His organization, which last year tracked 39 first responder suicides, offers various training programs like the one York Region employs. New this year is a postgraduate training certificate offered online. He hopes that through training, first responders can better utilize tools to stay healthy, recognize when they are suffering, and feel empowered to ask for help.  “First responders now have the peace of mind to know that they can get help without jumping through hoops” he said of the Government’s announcement.

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