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Government committee calls for research on PTSD in first responders

Report suggests new research institute


(Canadian OH&S News) — A committee of Members of Parliament (MP) is lobbying for the federal government to develop a national strategy to help first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other operational stress injuries. In particular, the group has recommended setting up a new research centre devoted to the workers’ mental health.

Chaired by Rob Oliphant, Liberal MP for the Don Valley West riding in Toronto, the committee published a 50-page report detailing its own research and recommendations on Oct. 4. The report, titled Healthy Minds, Safe Communities: Supporting Our Public Safety Officers through a National Strategy for Operational Stress Injuries, suggested a research institute for PTSD in firefighters, police officers, paramedics, correctional officers and similar professions.

“If we don’t have healthy first responders and public-safety officers, we won’t have safe communities,” Oliphant told COHSN. “Our safety and security, in a variety of ways, is dependent upon those who help us being healthy and well.”

The committee began its study after conducting a survey and realizing that there was not a lot of concrete data on the subject, in spite of the wide range of anecdotal narratives and therapy available, he explained.

“We don’t know enough. We don’t have best practices being shared. We don’t have international experience being translated into Canada well enough.”

The kind of research centre that the committee has in mind would be modelled off the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., but for first responders rather than military personnel.

What we heard in our testimony was that with soldiers, sailors and air-force members,” said Oliphant, “they could be in war, in theatre, and then come out for two weeks or three weeks, or two years, go back in, whereas police officers or EMS or corrections officers, every day, it is a cumulative effect. There could be nothing one day, and three days in a row, a tragic incident, and then nothing.”

This is why research is required into the cumulative effect of an ongoing, steady stream of tragedy, he said. The proposed institute would ideally collect data to study the prevalence of operational stress injuries, as well as establish an expert working group to collaborate with the government to come up with a response for employees who suffer from these conditions.

At the moment, supports for first responders and public-safety officers with PTSD are limited and tend to vary. Medical treatments and employee-assistance plans are available for some. VIA Rail, Oliphant noted, has processes for employees who witness traumatic events like train accidents with pedestrians.

“What’s good about that is, it reduces stigma,” he said. “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.”

This year, the Ontario government enacted legislation that made PTSD a presumptively occupational disease for first responders, meaning that those diagnosed do not have to prove that work caused the condition to get workers’ comp (COHSN, April 12). But Oliphant’s group has stopped short of demanding a similar federal law.

What we want is an investigation into presumptive legislation,” said Oliphant.

Our committee was really very favourably predisposed to it,” he added, “but we just don’t have the evidence on it. We don’t want to be knee-jerk.”

Healthy Minds, Safe Communities is available online at http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/HOC/Committee/421/SECU/Reports/RP8457704/421_SECU_Rpt05_PDF/421_SECU_Rpt05-e.pdf.