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OHS Canada Magazine

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Recognizing Mental Trauma


Two unions held a demonstration in Halifax on November 10 to express their support for a provincial bill that would allow presumptive coverage for first responders, correctional officers, nurses, social workers and several other types of professionals who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The bill was tabled by the NDP in the Nova Scotia legislature on October 14.

“Despite mounting evidence of the lasting impact of PTSD and the need for timely treatment, the Nova Scotia government has not moved on the issue,” the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees’ Union says, calling the passing of presumptive legislation in the province “long overdue.”

The demonstration was the latest in a series of developments in Canada’s recognition of PTSD as an occupational hazard, which has made notable progress this year. Provinces are passing laws making it easier for those afflicted with the condition to claim workers’ compensation benefits.

As well, a committee of Members of Parliament (MP) is lobbying for the federal government to develop a national strategy to help first responders with operational stress injuries. In particular, the group has recommended setting up a national research centre devoted to the workers’ mental health.

The committee, chaired by Rob Oliphant, Liberal MP for the Don Valley West riding in Toronto, published a report detailing its own research and recommendations on October 4. The report calls for a research institute modelled after the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, but for first responders rather than military personnel.

“If we don’t have healthy first responders and public-safety officers, we won’t have safe communities,” Oliphant says.

The committee began its study after realizing that there was not a lot of concrete data on the subject. Unlike soldiers, sailors and air-force members who might be engaged in war, but get breaks ranging from weeks to a couple of years before being sent back into combat, first responders encounter trauma every day. “It is a cumulative effect,” Oliphant says. “There could be nothing one day, and three days in a row, a tragic incident, and then nothing.”

Currently, supports for first responders and public-safety officers with PTSD are limited and tend to vary. For example, VIA Rail has processes for employees who witness traumatic events like train accidents with pedestrians.

“They have an assumption after a traumatic event that they have work to do to make sure something doesn’t go wrong. We don’t have that at the same level in our federal employees,” Oliphant says.

Legislation that makes PTSD presumptively work-related also helps to diminish the stigma around it. Manitoba passed a presumptive PTSD law for all workers early this year, while Ontario enacted a similar law for first responders in April. Saskatchewan jumped on the bandwagon on October 25 when its Ministry of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety introduced an amendment to the province’s Workers’ Compensation Act that covers all psychological injuries — not just PTSD — for all workers.

According to Saskatchewan Labour Minister Don Morgan, Saskatchewan’s Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) has covered psychological injuries since 1992. What makes the proposed amendment different is that it removes the claimants’ burden to prove that their injuries were caused by work. Instead, the employer and the WCB would have to disprove it before denying them. “It is just a matter of changing the onus.”

We need to talk

Education and public awareness about occupational PTSD has also moved a step or two forward this fall. The Ontario government held its first Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Summit on October 25. The following week, the Nova Scotia government launched its first annual Workplace Mental Health and PTSD Conference, which ran from October 31 to November 4 in Halifax.

“Five hundred thousand Canadians won’t go to work every day because of mental-health issues,” says Christine Penney, the senior executive director of the Nova Scotia government’s safety branch. The province has the highest suicide rates among first responders. “So we felt the need to have a conversation with first responders about reducing that stigma and thinking about the role of government in that.”

Improvement is needed in mental-health supports in the province’s workplaces, and the stigma around mental-health issues remains a huge hurdle. “There was a long period of time where people did not want to admit there was a mental-health problem,” Morgan says. But the demonstration in Halifax could be an indication that things are changing. “People are more willing to talk about mental-health issues.”

Jeff Cottrill is editor of Canadian Occupational Health & Safety News.