Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Among First Responders

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness that some individuals develop after experiencing a frightening, shocking, dangerous, or overwhelming event. Individuals with PTSD may have experienced the traumatic event by witnessing it or being directly involved. Traumatic events can range from a death or threat of death, natural disasters, war, accidents, sexual violence, crimes, etc.   

Trauma is generally unexpected. Being fearful or afraid at the time of the event and post-event is expected. Fear triggers the fight-or-flight response, which is the body’s instinct to defend against danger or to avoid it. Many individuals who have PTSD endure invasive symptoms that range from vivid nightmares or flashbacks, feeling anxious and irritable, difficulty concentrating, and / or lack of sleep or not sleeping well. Moods and thoughts may alter after experiencing a traumatic event that can create a disconnect to an individual and their body or suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide. This often leads to individuals abusing drugs and alcohol to help cope with PTSD.   

In April 2016, the Ministry of Labour announced the Supporting Ontario’s First Responders Act, that presumes PTSD diagnosed in first responders is work-related. First responders no longer need to prove their PTSD is because of work when making claims. First responders are twice as likely to suffer from PTSD compared to the general population due to the nature of their job. The First Responders Act enables first responders to have faster access to WSIB benefits, resources, and timely treatment.

The first responders covered under the PTSD presumption include:

  • Police, including First Nations constables, and chiefs of police
  • Firefighters (including part-time and volunteer firefighters), including those who are employed or who volunteer to provide fire protection services on a reserve; fire investigators, and fire chiefs
  • Paramedics and emergency medical attendants, and ambulance service managers
  • Workers involved in dispatching emergency services, including workers who play a role in the chain of communications which lead up to the dispatch for ambulance services, firefighters, and police
  • Correctional officers/youth services workers (including managers) and workers who provide direct health care services in adult institutional corrections and secure youth justice facilities
  • Members of emergency response teams dispatched by a communications officer

This Act enables employers to develop and implement a prevention plan to take a proactive approach in reducing PTSD in first responders by providing strategies for managing PTSD. Plans should include sections on prevention, intervention, recovery, and return-to-work.

Employers of workers covered under the PTSD presumption are directed to provide the Minister of Labour with information on their workplace post-traumatic stress disorder prevention plans by April 23, 2017. 

On The Road to Success

Recently, York Region Paramedic Services have been highlighted in the news regarding their proactive approach to assisting team members in reducing and coping with PTSD and other mental health illnesses. Their program includes a 20-member peer support team  that is trained in psychological first aid and works 12-hour shifts to check on their coworkers.

The peer support program was implemented back in November 2015 and more than 10,000 contacts were made between the peer support team and paramedics in the field within the first year. York Region Paramedic Services have noticed a shift in exposure injuries since the program has been implemented from physical injuries to occupational stress injuries. Paramedic and peer support team member, David Whitley, who has also experienced PTSD, reported that this initiative is working and helping.

With the success of this program, York Region Paramedic Services have released a new initiative to help paramedics return-to-work after being on mental health leave. With another fully equipped truck for this task force, the peer support member will ride along with another paramedic.

This initiative has been noted as one of the first in the country and so far, it seems to be making a positive impact for York Paramedic Services. 

As seen in our March Be Safe Newsletter

Written by Jenna Kressler | Curriculum Developer


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