Mental health barriers for public safety workers

Leading experts make recommendations to improve access to treatment

Mental health barriers for public safety workers

In a recent article published on Open Access Government by Gregory S. Anderson from Thompson Rivers University and Helen Dragatsi from the Government of Canada, the authors discuss the critical issue of mental health treatment accessibility for Canadian public safety personnel (PSP) and related workers.

The article delves into the challenges faced by these workers and highlights the recommendations for improving their access to essential mental health support.

The Challenge: Mental health struggles among PSP

Public safety personnel, including firefighters, police officers, paramedics, and other first responders, are exposed to traumatic events as a routine part of their job. These exposures often lead to severe psychological impacts, such as posttraumatic stress injuries (PTSI), anxiety, depression, PTSD, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, various Canadian jurisdictions have implemented legislative amendments aimed at simplifying the process for PSP to access workers' compensation for trauma-induced mental disorders.

Presumptive Clauses: Shifting the burden of proof

One significant development discussed in the article is the adoption of presumptive clauses in several Canadian provinces and territories. These clauses presume that a PSP's mental disorder is caused by their employment, thus making it easier for them to access workers' compensation for related claims. British Columbia has taken a substantial step by shifting the burden of proof from the employee to the employer. This change reduces the time PSPs must wait for treatment, minimizing stress and the potential exacerbation of their mental health conditions, including suicidal ideation.

Recommendations for improvements

The article goes further to outline recommendations for improving the effectiveness of presumptive legislation and addressing its limitations. These recommendations are drawn from extensive research and stakeholder engagement:

  1. Expanding Eligibility: It is suggested that presumptive legislation should be more inclusive, extending coverage to all workers or a broader range of PSP and related workers.
  2. Covering a Broader Range of PTSI: The scope of presumptive legislation should encompass a wider range of psychological symptoms and injuries that PSPs may experience following traumatic incidents, not limited to just PTSD.
  3. Reconsidering Time Limits: The legal timeframes for filing claims should be reevaluated to better align with the onset, progression, or duration of trauma-related psychological injuries.
  4. Balanced Evidentiary Requirements: The diagnosis of a psychological injury should not be limited to clinical psychologists or psychiatrists; it should also include general practitioners to expedite diagnosis.
  5. Clarifying Legal and Policy Concepts: Definitions of traumatic events arising out of employment should align with current scientific literature on PTSI, and further clarifications should be provided for greater accessibility and understanding of the law.
  6. Strengthening Organizational Interventions: Organizations should increase their support for primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention efforts, such as peer support, crisis intervention, family support, and therapy. They should also consider implementing return-to-work accommodations that allow for gradual re-exposure to trauma-related workplace triggers.

The article by Anderson and Dragatsi underscores the importance of addressing mental health barriers faced by Canadian public safety personnel and related workers. While presumptive legislation has been a significant step forward, there are still limitations that need to be addressed.