More help needed for first responders coping with stress, say researchers

By The Canadian Press
August 30, 2016 - 4:34pm

REGINA — Researchers at the University of Regina say there's a such a mishmash of programs aimed at helping first responders cope with stress that it's tough to know if any are working.

They released a paper Tuesday that evaluates the peer support and psychological intervention programs offered to help those who often confront death and violence at work.

Associate professor of psychology Nick Carleton said his team reviewed more than 100 studies and found little evidence that the programs are helping police officers, firefighters and paramedics suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma.

Carleton said increasing standards and uniformity for programs across the country would make it easier to measure results.

"If it's an entire myriad of different programs being administered in different ways, to different people at different times, then it becomes almost impossible for us to engage in any kind of quality control and that's not providing the kind of health care that our first responders deserve," Carleton said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

The Regina researchers also sent surveys to chiefs or leaders at approximately 270 police agencies, 150 paramedic agencies and more than 1,000 fire and rescue agencies to ask them about what programs are being offered to help first responders.

Only 134 provided complete responses.

"I don't think that it speaks to a lack of interest on their part in supporting mental health. I think it speaks more to the incredible amount of constraints that are on their time at any given moment," said Carleton.

Carleton said another survey to go out Sept. 1 will ask 250,000 first responders about their stress injuries and symptoms.

"Because if you were to ask, people would tell you that the estimates right now for something like PTSD among paramedics range anywhere from five to 35 per cent and that's because the research that's done has simply been insufficient," said Carleton.

"And that variability is making it really difficult for us to move forward in providing the kinds of support we need for first responders."

Carleton said he hopes the larger survey will also allow researchers to assess the impact of events, including the Fort McMurray fire.

The fire spread into the oilsands capital May 3 and destroyed about one-tenth of the city. Firefighters are credited with saving the rest of the community, but there is concern about their long-term mental and physical health.

Carleton plans to have the initial results available by Christmas.

The professor said all the work being done is a call to action.

He noted that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to work with provinces and territories and the minister of health to develop a co-ordinated national plan on post-traumatic stress disorder, which disproportionately affects public safety officers.

Mario Harel, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, supports the research paper. He said the mental health of people is at risk.

"This year alone, 26 Canadian first responders have taken their own lives. At the current rate this may be the worst year for suicides, surpassing the 40 first responders who died last year," Harel said in a news release issued by the University of Regina.

"This has to change."

Jennifer Graham, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said 174.

©2016 The Canadian Press

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