Province establishes prevention strategy to address post-traumatic stress disorder in first responders

By Jennifer Bieman, St. Thomas Times-Journal

The province has announced a new piece, a prevention strategy, to help solve the complicated puzzle of post-traumatic stress disorder in first responders.
The four-pronged approach to PTSD announced Monday by the Ministry of Labour is one part of Ontario’s emerging action plan to address the serious mental health issue. Moving forward, the ministry will be raising the public profile of the disorder, working to connect first responders with information and resources and promote research on the condition by making grant funds available.
“It’s a multi-faceted solution to a very complex problem,” said Labour Minister Kevin Flynn.
“We knew we could put together what I think is an excellent prevention program that prevents those people that put themselves in harm’s way for us that gives them the resources… to prevent being affected by PTSD in the first place.”
In March, the ministry will be launching the first leg of its prevention strategy, a $300,000 radio and digital awareness campaign targeting first responders, their families and colleagues.
“It’s aimed at reducing the stigma surrounding it. It’s aimed at encouraging those people that are dealing with it to come forward and to get treatment,” he said.
Flynn said big city police, fire departments and EMS services, by virtue of their size and location, often have more resources to allocate to mental health care than forces in smaller communities. In a bid to spread PTSD strategies and support province-wide, the ministry will begin work on a free online program for first responders and employers in the spring.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re running the volunteer fire department perhaps in Dorchester or perhaps in a smaller community, you’ll have exactly the same access to the ongoing research, to the resources that are available to the larger fire departments as well,” he said.
The high-tech tool will amass best-practices and studies from PTSD experts and will cost between $50,000 and $60.000 to design. Maintenance and updates to the program are estimated to cost an additional $20,000 per year.
While on-the-ground strategies are important, Flynn wants to see Ontario become a thought leader in the fight against PTSD. Building on the success of a conference held last April, the ministry intends to host an annual leadership summit to discuss strategies and policies for addressing PTSD in first responders. Grant money will also be made available for researchers interested in studying PTSD.
“I want Ontario to be a leader in this regard and I think the approach we are taking is going to put us in that position,” he said.
The Times-Journal caught up with some local first responders and provincial government figures to get their take on the announced PTSD plan.

St. Thomas Police Chief Darryl Pinnell

“It is a big issue … We’re so concerned about service to the public, but unless you take care of your own it’s very difficult to take care of the public … I’m very pleased that there will be an education campaign and they’re starting to do something with it,” he said.
Pinnell added all members of the St. Thomas police are trained in a program called Road to Mental Readiness that helps officers identify signs of PTSD and work-related stress in their colleagues.
“There was a day when you would just suck it up and do what you have to do, but that’s not the way it is anymore,” he said.
“We recognize that it is a real thing and it has to be dealt with.”

St. Thomas Fire Chief Rob Broadbent

“We’ve certainly had the discussions about it around here … It’s good that all parties work together to come up with a plan that’s going to work for the people work in this industry,” said Broadbent.
“First of all, you have to recognize what PTSD is … I can recognize a broken leg if it happens today at work, but post-traumatic stress is not necessarily that recognizable so it’s a more difficult issue to deal with but it’s certainly an issue that needs to be dealt with.”

Jeff Yurek, Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP and PC Health Critic

“It’s a good start … we’re fully supportive of them bringing out the actions to help with post-traumatic stress disorder. But we know they can do more. There’s a lot of people in the system right now who are being denied their workers’ compensation,” said Yurek, who wants to see the Ontario government pass Bill 2, an amendment to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act that would officially recognize PTSD in legislation.
“We want to fast-track Bill 2. It recognizes that PTSD is a debilitating condition and lowers the barriers for first responders to get support and treatment. Right now there’s a lot of barriers, especially with worker’s compensation … The people who are suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder need treatment and support now.”

Kevin Flynn, Labour Minister

“Bill 2, dealing with PTSD, is a good start, but it’s nowhere near enough. First responders in Ontario deserve much more than Bill 2 and that’s my intent. The Premier has asked me to bring forward a comprehensive approach. We know that that involves legislative changes, and we know that that involves preventative changes as well … This is a top priority for me to start to implement the other side of this. The preventative part is announced and is in place and now we’ll be starting to bring in the legislative changes that are necessary.”