A 2012 study by psychiatric researches in Brazil estimated that, worldwide, ten percent (10%) of emergency responders (Police, Fire, Paramedics) suffer from PTSD. That number is comparable to the PTSD rate experienced by US military personnel who fought during the war in Iraq.
The numbers were quoted in an article published in the Brandon Sun titled, “Police, Fire and Ambulance Personnel face high PTSD Rates, seek new aid.”
The article indicated there’s a growing movement in Canada to treat PTSD in emergency responders. The Provinces of British Columbia and Alberta have recently adopted worker compensation laws to make PTSD a presumptive condition. The change means workers suffering from PTSD will be presumed to have it as a direct result of their employment. That will make it easier for the affected workers to qualify for compensation and treatment.
The report indicates the Ontario government has introduced a similar bill in the Legislature and Manitoba appears to be ready to follow suit.
The changes not only make receiving treatment and compensation easier, it helps to provide emergency response workers with the acknowledgement and acceptance they desperately need to help reduce the stigma attached to the illness. Reduce the stigma > increase the number of affected workers who will seek help.
While the effects of PTSD on members of the Military have long been accepted, the same can’t be said for Police, Fire and Paramedics. It’s only in recent years that we’ve come to realize the devastating consequences the illness has had on emergency workers. When it comes to Law Enforcement, that realization has come by way of an ever-increasing body count. Police Officer suicide is now claiming more Officer’s lives than on duty deaths.
The RCMP recently confirmed thirty-one (31) serving and retired Police Officers have committed suicide since 2006. Four of these deaths occurred within just the past year. Twenty-three (23) OPP Officers have committed suicide since 1989.
This past weekend I spoke to a retired WPS veteran who served the City of Winnipeg for over thirty (30) years. Several of those years were spent working in high-profile violent crime and Homicide. The Officer has been retired for almost fifteen (15) years and has only recently been diagnosed with PTSD. The diagnosis seemed to take him by surprise. The sleep deprivation he’s been struggling with for so long wasn’t really being caused by dreams that morphed into nightmares as he once thought. In reality, those nightmares were graphic memories he simply could no longer suppress.
It was all coming back to him.
It was the bludgeoned bodies of little children that seem to haunt him the most.
I was disturbed to hear he struggled to find support when he sought the services of a mental health professional. After thirty (30) years of dedicated service the Officer was apparently left to his own devices to seek out and pay for mental health treatment.
That just doesn’t seem right to me.
The Officer served the City of Winnipeg during an era when Police Officer’s didn’t show their emotions or even acknowledge they had emotions. The only treatment for emotional trauma in those days was a stiff drink of whiskey and the calming effects of a deck of cigarettes.
Thankfully, Policing has evolved since those days.
We now acknowledge and accept the fact Police Officers are human beings with feelings and emotions that can be injured by the work they do.
But where does that leave the veteran Officer?
When I ran that question by the Winnipeg Police Association they indicated they were aware of the issue and expressed concern, however, they indicated the issue was one that had to be addressed by the employer.
That led to an enquiry with the Winnipeg Police Service Public Information Officer who provided the following statement;
“The Winnipeg Police Service is committed to the well-being of its’ membership in relation to PTSD and overall wellness. We are currently in discussions regarding retired members and Behavioral Health Services; however, be assured should a retired member in distress or in a time of crisis require emergent care, services such as our Police Psychologist would be extended.”
Police sources indicate things may not be quite that simple.
While it may be true the WPS will provide access to a Police Psychologist in crisis situations, that care may be limited to an initial assessment and will not be enduring. Sources indicate the Police Psychologist is not in a position to take the responsibility to give long-term care and would likely give a referral.
At this time, it appears the enduring costs of the treatment would be the responsibility of the affected Officer.
I had an opportunity to run the issue by Mayoral candidate Paula Havixbeck during an intriguing hour-long conversation at a local coffee shop the other day. Paula recently viewed a Vice News documentary featuring Aboriginal Street Gangs in Winnipeg and wanted to meet and have a frank discussion regarding the criminal landscape in our troubled City.
During our conversation Havixbeck expressed deep concern regarding street gangs, poverty and crime. She asked probing questions designed to gain insight into our many crime challenges but more importantly, she demonstrated a keen interest to find solutions. As a former North End resident and St Johns High School Grad, one thing was clear, Havixbeck genuinely cares about crime and safety issues in all corners of the City and not just her own constituency.
During our conversation I found a segue into a discussion regarding PTSD.
“What are we doing for our retired Police Officers, Fire Fighters and Paramedics who are suffering with emotional damage they sustained during their careers working for the City,” I asked.
Havixbeck didn’t pretend to have an immediate answer or solution for the problem but she did show compassion and sensitivity regarding the issue. I expect she’ll take some time to properly evaluate the situation before she adopts a public position regarding the matter.
While I can’t predict who the next Mayor of Winnipeg might be, it’s clear that whoever it is, they should be ready to give serious consideration to establishing a City funded retired emergency services workers mental health program to deal with job related emotional injury and PTSD.
“Often, it isn’t the initiating trauma that creates seemingly insurmountable pain, but the lack of support after,” S. Kelley Harrell, Author, Gift of the Dreamtime.