Paramedics in British Columbia are seeking increased mental-health support and psychological training amid increasing challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic and the opioid crisis.

Troy Clifford, provincial president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. and president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 873, says the province’s paramedics are currently reimbursed for just $100 worth of psychological support services, far lower than their counterparts in B.C.’s police and fire services. He adds education, funding and stigma around mental health have been the main challenges to increasing these benefits.

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“Mental health and wellness supports aren’t necessarily a benefit — they’re a right. When I’m injured at work, whether it’s physical or mental, asking for help shouldn’t be a benefit. This isn’t like negotiating a claim for eyeglasses — we’re talking about fundamental support for psychological well-being.”

Enhanced mental-health benefits are also required to support paramedics’ dependants, he says, adding B.C.’s Health Minister Adrian Dix has recommitted to mental-health support for paramedics and their families.

The combined pressures of the pandemic and opioid crisis have also impacted the sector’s ability to retain and attract workers, which in turn puts additional strain on paramedics, says Clifford. There were eight million emergency calls in B.C. last year, a roughly 25 per cent year-over-year increase with a daily average of 1,700 calls.

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“Our job is to treat and transport people to the hospital, as well as treating people over the phone with medical instruction and dispatching ambulances. To do that, we need two healthy people in a paramedic unit and a healthy dispatcher — healthy in both mind and body. Everything we do around mental health and wellness needs to be with that patient-centred focus.”