Vancouver's fire department is launching a new mental wellness program for its members Tuesday to help them recognize when they or a colleague may need some extra help coping.

Steve Fraser, a peer support leader with the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services, has teamed up with the Canadian Mental Health Association to develop the program over the past six months. 

About half of firefighters have marital problems and they have a 30 per cent higher suicide rate than the average Canadian, says Fraser.

"Trauma affects everyone in different ways. With firefighters, we know we suffer from the cumulative events of the work that we do," said Fraser, who has fought fires for 18 years.  

"Over a 20 or 30 year career, things start to add up, start to build up."

Breaking the stigma

steve fraser vancouver fire department

Steve Fraser has been with the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services for 18 years and now hopes to help his colleagues cope better with a new mental wellness initiative. (Charlie Cho/CBC)

Talking about mental health issues in the fire hall was not always the norm, but Fraser says awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in recent years has helped firefighters recognize the effect trauma can have.

"We are breaking that stigma … We are talking about it more than we ever have, which is great to see," he said.

"On a typical day at a fire hall, if we have a bad call, guys will now come back and they will address it."

Fraser says the new program is not about providing firefighters with therapy, to which they already have access.

But he hopes it will raise mental health awareness among all firefighters to encourage greater peer support and help them address problems both at work and home.

"The whole idea is to educate everyone on the common signs and symptoms," he said.

The pilot program will roll out in Vancouver fire halls over the next two years.