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Wellesley investigating options for PTSD issues that affect first responders

It used to be called shell shock or combat fatigue in military circles, but now, post-traumatic stress disorder in first responders is at the forefront of Wellesley fire chief Paul Redman’s mind.

In a presentation to Wellesley council Tuesday night, he cited a need for support services for township emergency staff and first responders. There have been eight suicides due to PTSD already this year in Ontario, he noted.

There is a stigma around PTSD, with Redman saying it needs to be a topic of conversation, especially among emergency workers.

“First responders have an increased exposure to traumatic events. First responder suicides only, in 2014, there were 27, and 18 were in Ontario. There have been eight so far, this year and two in Ontario,” shared Redman. “Those two, one was in Waterloo Region and one was right next door to us. It is not like this is happening somewhere far away. It is in our backyard.”

PTSD is considered a mental illness and is often the result of exposure to trauma, death, the threat of death or serious injury. It causes serious symptoms such as re-experiencing the traumatic event. It can cause trouble in a first responder’s home life, alcohol and drug abuse, difficulty maintaining relationships, difficulty sleeping, aggressive behaviour and feelings of shame and guilt and suicidal thoughts, he explained.

After legislation from the Ministry of Labour last year, all municipalities are required to have PTSD supports for full-time, part-time and on-call first responders. The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board have also recognized PTSD as a work-related illness.

“Basically, if someone is officially diagnosed with PTSD and they have been a first responder, the claims process for WSIB benefits will be expedited without having to prove the link between the PTSD and a workplace event,” he said of the legislative changes. “What that means for us, is that we are required to have a program in place by Apr. 23.”

Redman investigated different options for PTSD treatments, and some firefighters have already attended mental health first aid courses as a first step.

“The main part of our support will be peer-based. Contacts will be available at the stations and accessible to all the members. That is the big part, that we make sure to keep getting out there, especially with early recognition in the people they work with – recognize that they aren’t the same and that something might be up. That is a big part of the training,” he said. “We can take it further and make sure that they get the help they need. It will also become a part of our yearly training for members.”

That help comes in the form of an on-call PTSD counsellor at $175 for a two-hour critical incident stress debrief.

“It’s money well spent,” said Coun. Carl Smit.

Mayor Joe Nowak wanted to know more about PTSD.

“So, it is a mental health issue, so there is no cure? I mean, is there a cure? From what I have heard, people can live a productive life with this if they get it treated,” he asked. “Then there are others that succumb to it.”

“This has been around for hundreds of years, since whenever,” Redman replied. “It has always had a name, but it hasn’t always been addressed. In the last few years, it has become a focus and it has become okay to talk about it and take that stigma off. When it interferes with how you do your job, first responders have high divorce rates and that kind of thing, and these are all parallel. They have always been there, and we are just getting around to dealing with it now.”

A report prepared by Redman outlined some of the different steps the fire department is going to take to bring PTSD out in the open among first responders, highlighting peer supports and ongoing mental health training.

Only when a situation or case of PTSD is beyond peer support will an outside counselor be called in.

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