BY JASMINE ANTHONY AND ERIN QUEENAN
A new bill was passed last week by the Ontario government to enable first-responders with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to acquire faster mental-health treatment.
What this means, is after decades of needing to prove their PTSD was work-related, first-responders– such as police officers, firefighters, and paramedics– in Ontario will no longer need to go through the same gruelling process as before, and PTSD will instead be presumed as a result of their work.
“For somebody that is going through PTSD, that doesn’t force them to relive the occurrences again, to go for months and months untreated while WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario) is making up its mind, or having tribunal hearings, or doing research and appeals,” says Oakville MPP and Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn.
“Instead, under the presumptive way, the person just starts to get treated.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder, as defined by Mayo Clinic, is “a mental health condition triggered by a traumatic event.”
Symptoms include flashbacks, upsetting dreams about the event, severe emotional distress and increased anxiety.
PTSD does not only affect first responders, but studies show that prevalence in general population is significantly lower than in those with jobs in corrections, paramedics, and firefighters. Police officers and military personnel also have a greater tendency to develop PTSD.
Under the new legislation, which was passed April 5, workers will still need a diagnosis from either a psychiatrist or psychologist.
This is not the first time a bill like this has been introduced. In fact, Bill 2, a private members bill pushed by Cheri DiNovo, MPP for Parkdale-High Park, was introduced for the first time seven years ago. Since then, it has been tabled five times.
Flynn was being pushed by opposition to pass Bill 2, but he says, “The private members bill, as much as its had placed the issue on the table, was not very good.”
He said it didn’t include people in corrections, First Nations, dispatchers and people who run paramedic systems.
“So what we came up with was a very, very comprehensive piece of legislation that included a lot more people,” Flynn says.
He also mentions there was no prevention plan in place with Bill 2, which there now is in the new legislation. Employers must submit a prevention plan, which will be made public. He believes that prevention is an important aspect of this bill.
“There’s no cure for (PTSD), it’s not like you can get it and get rid of it,” says Flynn, adding that while you can cope with, manage and treat PTSD, at this point you “have it for the rest of your life.”
“Wouldn’t it be better if we were able to prevent people from getting PTSD in the first place?”
Flynn says the policies put in place by the new legislation will go back two years in time, which means any claim in the system now will be automatically approved. A denied claim made in the past two years would also be approved.
“The process by which you get diagnosed with PTSD is traumatic in and of itself,” former police officer, Leslie Maley.
It has taken so long for an amendment to be made in favour of those with PTSD because it is only in recent years that we have started talking about it.
“People are much more comfortable with physical injuries than they are with mental injuries, because there’s a shame that goes along with it.”
Flynn says that for a while, society “was accepting a certain amount of suicides,” and both society and the first-responder organizations themselves were not comfortable talking about it.
“It was just something that you didn’t tell your colleagues about, you didn’t tell your boss about because you thought maybe you’d get fired or that they thought they hired the wrong person.”
Flynn believes that this stigma seems to have dropped away in the past five, ten years.
“I think the advances in mental health in general have accelerated so much in that period of time,” he says. “People have decided that they are going to talk about it, that they don’t need to feel ashamed about it.”
Tanya Philp a professor in Sheridan’s Police Foundations program is encouraged by the new legislation.
“With the passing of the new law, once an emergency worker is diagnosed with PTSD by a medical professional, treatment can begin immediately rather than ignoring the signs and symptoms of PTSD,” which Philp described in an email interview as potentially fatal.
“The passing of the new law will hopefully make it more comfortable for Emergency Service workers to obtain a discreet professional assessment. Again the goal here is to identify the PTSD early so it can be treated effectively.”
Leslie Maley fought the police force for 15 years for effective treatment. Shot on her last day of police college, Maley was told after four months of recovery to get back on the road. But she wasn’t ready.
“I kept saying the injury in my leg is healing, but my brain hasn’t healed yet.
The WSIB didn’t recognize her “brain injury.” Back in 1995 when Maley was shot, PTSD wasn’t recognized as a mental health illness.
“One of my first experiences was cradling my partner’s head into my lap as he lay bleeding out on the side of the road. That was March 23 at 7:03 p,m, in 1995.”
“You don’t forget trauma,” says Maley.
“(WSIB) would call and say we will withhold your benefits. So it was two steps forward and two steps back. I came back to work in August, had my breakdown the following June.”
After her breakdown Maley took time off for two months. That is where she found a trauma specialist who’s been treating her on and off for 20 years.
Then, in 2004, Maley responded to a call on patrol. It was a child not breathing. She performed first aid and CPR until she saw the child was stiffening and in the first stage of rigor mortis, a sign of death. She stopped and had to push the mother off the child. Then Maley comforted the new paramedic who was breaking down at the death of a two-year-old girl.
“I still see that child all the time. All the time.”
Maley describes her PTSD symptoms from 1995-2004 as on and off. After the incident with the little girl, her symptoms became chronic and now she lives with PTSD every single day.
“The process by which you get diagnosed with PTSD is traumatic in and of itself.”
In 2010, Maley had a staff sergeant walk into her office and say, “Leslie your WSIB restrictions, are we bound by law to adhere to that?” She’s been accused of faking her condition. She’s been accused of milking it to get favour. “There are systemic issues that run through EMS, fire and police that are attached to the stigma,” says Maley.
“I got back my real health the day I handed my badge back, because you’re out of that culture of judgment. Civilians don’t scrutinize my PTSD for merit. They just believe it.”
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Maley says she is shocked at how much better other countries are handling it.
She has a friend in the British Metropolitan Police, and if an officer is injured in the line of duty, and walk away victorious they are rewarded for it. In their training they are taught to identify the signs and symptoms of PTSD. If a senior officer notices something wrong it’s their job to pull an officer aside and direct him or her to the right service.
According to Maley, that’s unheard of here, who describes the environment as a “a pick up your bootstraps, suck it up and move on.”
“If you show weakness, if you show any sign that injury turns into that bruise. You’re a bad apple.”
According to Maley, when it comes to a promotion they’ll pass over an officer who’s accommodated and give it to someone who’s actually put in the full time work.
This is why Maley has little faith in the new peer support position being implemented with the intention of helping officers with PTSD and stress. The position was created after an officer committed suicide in Maley’s department in Ottawa. The peer mentor will support officers with personal and mental health issues and be filled by someone already in the force.
“Those positions are going to go to someone who wants to pad their resume,” says Maley. Police officers aren’t going to feel comfortable going to other police officers, especially senior officers, to talk about personal issues.”
There’s a wellness peer support office in the Hamilton Police Department. It is right across from the staff desk that every police officer walks by every day.
“It’s like putting a rape crisis office right in front of the boys’ locker room,” says Maley.
This is a big turnoff for officers.
“One person sees me walk in there and I’ve lost credibility. I won’t get promoted. That’s the mindset.”
Although no longer with the force, Maley would love to work as a peer mentor for her former co-workers in Ottawa.
“You don’t want to get PTSD because it makes you sound weak…” paramedic student Jennifer Smith.
“I now teach and am determined to convince my police department to hire me back to take a peer position . . . I think that position was created for me.”
Maley now teaches at Trillium College in Burlington and is a peer support mentor with Badge of Life Canada, which is an organization of volunteers supporting po
lice officers who are dealing with psychological and mental health injuries.
Even before someone begins work as a first responder, there is stigma.
Jennifer Smith, a 20 year-old paramedic student at Trillium College, sees this stigma in her classroom. “If a bunch of us are sitting down at the table talking about a situation, half are going to say ‘This will be traumatizing’ and the other half will respond, ‘Well, you signed up for this.’ ”
Smith says even phrases like “Ew that’s gross” or “That’s upsetting,” causes classmates to wonder if you’re really fit for the job.
“You don’t want to get PTSD because it makes you sound weak, so it provides relief and comfort to know that something’s being done to make it okay.”
“PTSD can happen to anyone. I think the new legislation would be a good start but I don’t think it’s going to be the solution.” Like Maley, Smith sees it’s going to be a long road to break the stigma built up in the first response work force. “Things can’t change overnight. My generation is hopefully going to be more accepting because it’s now being taught in schools. I had to take a course all about PTSD. I’m lucky, other colleges don’t teach it at all.”
At Sheridan PTSD awareness is taught in the second year Conflict Resolution Course and continued learning is implemented in other courses. Philp is optimistic about this learning. “From my experiences, students are very receptive to the subject matter and concerned for the well-being of emergency service workers.”
The professor maintains it’s all about awareness. “The more education and information we can get out there the better.”
As for the new legislation, while Maley wants to be optimistic, she doesn’t believe it will be enough to change the stigma within the walls of the police force.
“I am not convinced that legislation alone is going to solve that problem. Only because, unfortunately, the mindset of the employer now, even with all the officers, and firefighters and paramedics committing suicide,” says Maley. “It still doesn’t make good business sense, monetarily, across the system to recognize PTSD.”
Similar legislation was passed in Manitoba, but according to an article in the Winnipeg Free Press, first responders are still more likely to pay out of pocket rather than use employee assistance programs, to avoid criticism by peers.