(Canadian OH&S News) — The recent death of a paramedic near Cape Spear, N.L. has spurred calls for improvements in mental-health supports for emergency responders across the province.
Chris Pearce, a paramedic with Eastern Health (EH), committed suicide on Aug. 6. According to local media reports, a report of a body in the water off Cape Spear brought emergency personnel to the area at about 1:00 p.m. that day. The media has stated Pearce’s age as 49 years old. EH paramedics held a public candlelight vigil for Pearce at the Health Science Centre helipad in St. John’s on the evening of Aug. 7.
Chris Harris, president of the Paramedic Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, suggested that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) could have been a factor in Pearce’s death, but stressed that it was impossible to know for sure.
“Only the individual ultimately knows what led them into a particular crisis. Everyone else can only speculate on the possible cause,” said Harris.
On Aug. 10, the National Union of Public and General Employees posted a message on its website quoting Jerry Earle, president of Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public Employees, urging the province to develop a better mental-health support system for paramedics and other professionals in emergency medical services (EMS).
“Depending on what jurisdictions you’re in, the supports vary from minimal to probably some that are exceptional,” Earle told COHSN. “The supports are certainly not consistent, and in some areas, there is very minimal support.”
He cited Toronto and Quebec City as among the municipalities across the country where emergency responders have access to proper mental-health support services. “There are people that are in place, professionals that can assist,” he said. “That needs to be, I believe, in place for all emergency medical services.”
Earle, a former paramedic, explained that while most people experience only a few traumatic incidents during their entire lives, “paramedics deal with this pretty well every day.” It’s an accumulative stress that builds up during constant traumatic incidents, he said, and there’s no time to prepare or walk away from these experiences while on the job. “You just go on and provide services to the general population without the opportunity to actually get help for yourself.”
According to Harris, it used to be the norm for emergency responders to keep their stress private and avoid showing signs of weakness – but that way of thinking has been changing. “As a professional community, we need to understand that it is not a sign of weakness to ask for help in dealing with stress, PTSD and other mental-health issues,” he said.
He suggested research and education as necessary steps to assist paramedics who undergo trauma. “Research must be a cornerstone of this process. We need to fully understand the impact that stress-related mental-health issues can have on our professionals. Then we can develop better strategies on where to utilize our resources and energy.”
In addition, Harris added, paramedics and their families should be educated to recognize when they may need help – while the public needs to understand the stresses that these workers face on a daily basis.
Earle pointed out that such supports are necessary not only for paramedics, but also for firefighters, police officers and emergency medical dispatchers. These professionals require treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as critical-incident stress management. “They all deal with different types of critical incidents, and there needs to be proper training and supports in place,” he said, “so that it’s recognized early, because intervention early is one of the best options that are available.”
“The goal must be to do our best to prevent tragedies like these from happening,” said Harris.