New mental-health program for paramedics ‘long overdue’

The Ontario government announced last week it is investing $199,970 to support the Paramedic Association of Canada in developing a new mental-health standard for paramedics.

The investment is part of $1.9 million being invested through the Occupational Health and Safety Prevention and Innovation Program, which aims to support workplace projects that improve health in the workplace.

“I’m excited about the funding, because finally they will be able to, with their collective partners, look at establishing some guidelines that EMS services across the country, paramedic services across the country, could actually look to and utilize,” says Vince Savoia, a former paramedic and the founder and executive director of Tema Conter Memorial Trust, a non-profit organization that provides support to public safety employees.

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This program is “long overdue,” he adds, and comes in the wake of troubling signs in the public safety community. While the average male suicide rate in Canada is around 17 per 100,000 and the average female rate is 5.4 per 100,000, the paramedic suicide rate in 2016 is already 47.7 per 100,000, according to figures from Tema Conter Memorial Trust.

Though paramedics already have support through crisis prevention, peer support, and employee and family assistance programs, the system is “fragmented,” says Savoia, “and a lot of employers don’t really understand how to put all the pieces together.

“And to make things worse, there’s still a very strong stigma within the first responder community that coming forward and asking for help is still a weakness.”

Frances Tuer, an organizational behaviour and human resources management lecturer at McMaster University, agrees there’s often a stigma associated with receiving treatment. “There’s no point having great health and wellness programs if people won’t step forward,” she says . “The biggest thing is to break down the barriers that have to do with reporting, to reduce the stigma of mental health.”

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Barbara Green, a lawyer at Toronto-based law firm Robins Appleby LLP, says employers are legally obligated to provide some mental-health support in the workplace, however systems in place are largely reactive, and depend on disclosure from the employee.

“The person with the disability has to take a proactive role in finding and obtaining their own accommodations in the workplace,” says Green.

In addition to the stigmas that affect other industries, paramedics are subject to frequent traumatic events, which can have an emotionally cumulative effect and result in post traumatic stress disorders or other psychological problems, says Tuer.

Read: How psychologically healthy are your employees?

To tackle these issues, Savoia would like to see established standards around pre-incident training and education for frontline staff and their families, as well as an increased focus on consistently available psychological support, prevention and resiliency, instead of the current reactive model.

The new program seems poised to tackle some of Savoia’s concerns, with its broad focus on prevention and increasing employers’ ability to bring together the available disparate mental-health resources for their staff.

“[The program] is a step that is long overdue and I am so thankful that it’s finally happening,” says Savoia. “We do have a problem within the paramedic community that needs to be addressed.”

The Ottawa Citizen reports that in developing the standard, the paramedics’ association will be working with other groups, including the Canadian Standards Association and the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

The project aims to develop and distribute resources that will be used to identify and control psychological hazards, increase employer capacity to promote psychological health and wellness among paramedics, reduce stigma and harassment, and prevent psychological harm.

Read: Mental Health Commission publishes five-year strategic plan