A Bruce County paramedic who helped to launch the national “I’ve got your back 911” mental health awareness campaign for first responders says the province’s announcement of a new post-traumatic stress strategy for emergency workers is a step in the right direction.
But Jill Foster says it doesn’t go far enough and it’s crucial that the province approves legislation like the proposed private member’s Bill 2, which would expand workers compensation coverage for police officers, paramedics and firefighters in Ontario by recognizing PTSD as a workplace illness.
“I think peoples’ lives depend on that bill,” she said Thursday in an interview.
“Without having financial support to be off work when you’re struggling, it’s like stacking bricks on your back.
“You need time off work to be able to heal properly and not have to worry about financial woes. You need to not have to worry about losing your house or the shirt off your back because that’s the last thing someone should be dealing with when they’re already off work with a PTSD diagnosis.”
Bill 2 would compel the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board to presume a first responders’ PTSD was caused by their job.
The workers now have to prove the link before receiving coverage.
NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo has tabled the legislation five times at Queen’s Park. Bill 2 passed second reading in the fall.
Both Alberta and Manitoba currently recognize PTSD as a workplace injury for first responders, but so far Ontario has not.
Ontario Labour Minister Kevin Flynn said in Question Period in November that the Liberal government is working on creating PTSD legislation and will introduce it in the near future.
“Simply put, Bill 2 is a good start, it got us talking about it, it put the issue on the table, but it’s nowhere near as robust as anywhere else in this country that has legislation. I want Ontario to lead this country, not to follow this country when it comes to PTSD,” he said.
Earlier this month during an Ontario Professional Fire Fighter’s Association health and safety seminar, Flynn said the province is looking at the coverage of first responders under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act.
“Because right now, as you know, in order to be covered you need to be able to demonstrate you were injured on the job. Given all that we ask of you and all that we know about what that can mean for your mental health, the least we can do for you is ensure your coverage and treatment is as barrier-free as possible,” he said.
Flynn said the new initiatives announced Feb. 1 are the first piece of a provincial PTSD strategy.
They include providing grants for research that support the prevention of PTSD, creating a radio and digital campaign aimed at increasing awareness about PTSD among first responders and eliminating the stigma that prevents many from seeking help and creating a free online toolkit with resources on PTSD for employers and first responders.
DiNovo, who spoke with The Sun Times Thursday, said tens of thousands of people have signed petitions to support Bill 2. It also has the support of associations representing police officers, paramedics and firefighters.
“I don’t know what the hold up is from the government. When they made this announcement (about the PTSD strategy), I thought where’s the promise, where’s the workplace legislation? And we’re still not seeing it. We better see it in February otherwise there will be thousands here on the front lawns of Queen’s Park just demanding what is an essential truly,” said the Parkdale-High Park MPP, who has been trying for seven years to get legislation passed.
DiNovo said she has no objections to the province creating a broader piece of legislation than Bill 2.
Foster, who is also a paramedic in Elgin County, said she will be keeping a close eye on the government’s response to the proposed PTSD legislation.
“I truly think until that bill is passed, we’re still going to have an uphill battle.”
She said she has heard hundreds of stories of first responders suffering work-related PTSD.
“We’ve had people send us suicide notes with their wills attached. They’ve private messaged us a suicide note. And that’s happened more than once,” said Foster, who started the “I’ve got your back” campaign with three other paramedics in Elgin County.
PTSD can be triggered by a single call, which may or may not impact a person’s colleagues who also attended the scene. It can also be caused by a build-up of everyday calls, she said.
“It’s different for everybody.”
Evidence shows that first responders are at least twice as likely as the general population to suffer from PTSD, due to the risk of routine exposure to traumatic stressors, according to the province.
Last year, 39 emergency workers and 12 military personnel in Canada died bysuicide.
The province describes PTSD as involving clinically significant distress and impairment to functioning and the development of certain types of symptoms following exposure to one or more traumatic events. It can include painful flashbacks, nightmares, outbursts, thoughts of suicide and feelings of worry, guilt or sadness.
Mike Muir, director of paramedic services for Grey County, said introducing a PTSD strategy for first responders is the right move for the province to make.
“We think it’s key that this new program will help to reduce the stigma of mental health problems with first responders and it clears the path for future programs that will help to deal with this issue,” he said.
Muir said legislation like Bill 2 would also be a good step forward for first responders.
Grey County currently has an employee assistance program to help paramedics who may be suffering from a mental health problem. The plan is to ramp the program up this spring.
All staff will be trained in mental health awareness, Muir said. The department will also develop a staff-elected critical assistance team that will be available to paramedics and direct them to available resources.