First responders across British Columbia will soon have expanded mental health supports for issues and illnesses they undergo through the traumatic experiences they face regularly in this role.
Lac la Hache Fire Chief Terry Murphy has also served as vice-president of the Volunteer Firefighters Association of B.C. (VFABC), and says that whether in the workplace or as a volunteer, first responders also face unfair stigmas and fear of repercussions from a general lack of insight and public understanding about mental illnesses.
While Murphy notes he had attended VFABC meetings for about five years prior to that, and the La la Hache Volunteer Fire Department has belonged to this association for many years, he more recenty has taken on a greater role as its V-P.
Since January 2016, he has driven to Vancouver once a month to attend meetings as the VFABC representative working with WorkSafeBC on a steering committee delving into first responder mental health, he adds.
Murphy says part of the committee’s mandate is to support the volunteer firefighters that he represents, as well as first responders with the RCMP, BC Ambulance Service, Search and Rescue and several other agencies across the province serving in these very important roles.
“The way it has been in the past, WorkSafeBC has had it set up as though it’s just a one-off [diagnosis] when you are putting in a claim about mental health. They’ve now recognized that it is actually a job-related stress and they’re looking at fast-tracking applications for first responders in particular.”
The challenges faced by first responders as they deal personally with the traumatic and stressful situations they witness at the scene often lead to issues with mental health, but also with the stigma that is often associated with this job-related injury, he adds.
“First responder [injuries], or mental health issues in general, are difficult to diagnose and difficult to get claims moving forward with because it’s pretty tough [to do].”
Whether it is post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) most commonly talked about in public and the media, or one of numerous other mental health issues, these are now being recognized as longer-term workplace injuries, he explains.
Murphy says the efforts being made by the steering committee include educating people to move away from incorrectly pointing to associated symptoms as a “personal illness” with an attitude of “oh, you’re not well today.”
For certain first responders whose work involves carrying a firearm as part of their daily routine, it can be difficult to talk to their supervisor about the mental health issues they’ve have been experiencing, for fear of being misunderstood, pulled off the job and reassigned, he adds.
“We’re working to get the claims process and the treatment program in line with that when applying at WorkSafeBC. We’ve made adjustments and created reviews on how to speed up and make that claim process for first responders more ‘palatable’ so they don’t feel bad when they have to go make that claim on mental health issues.”
Murphy says once the committee has completed its drafts, it will soon be releasing project details including an anti-stigma campaign and a new website, including professional supports for both health practitioners and self-checks for first responders to correctly recognize the signs of workplace mental illness.
“When you are having PTSD issues, for example, and your doctor is sending you to a marriage counsellor, that’s not doing you any good, you need to go see someone that specializes in PTSD – and so for a practitioner to have occupational awareness is key.”
The committee’s new website will include professional advice and contacts as well as “anything we can get out to the first responders that is going to be meaningful and helpful,” he adds.
Noting 73 per cent of the firefighters in B.C. are volunteers, Murphy says this committee will offer another voice for all the first responders and the families who support them 24/7 in their active and important roles across B.C., especially in rural communities, such as the South Cariboo.