Paramedics in Thunder Bay are responding to 80 per cent more calls than they did a decade ago, and they say mental health problems and substance misuse are a big part of the increase, stretching their limits.

Paramedic Ryan Ross said up to 40 per cent of his work involves people with mental health or substance abuse issues.

"It does get frustrating when you're dealing with the same problems over and over again," Ross said.

Both Ross and the chief of Emergency Medical Services agree that mental health problems and addictions can result in genuine medical emergencies.

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Norm Gale, chief of Emergency Medical Services in Thunder Bay, said a holistic approach is needed to deal with mental health and addictions issues. (Jody Porter/CBC)

But Norm Gale said paramedics worry about other emergencies slipping through the cracks.

"What's going to happen when someone breaks a leg, [or] has a heart attack, or there's a car accident?" he asked. "What's going to happen when that call comes in? And will we be able to get there while we're standing here dealing with this kind of thing?"

Gale said more ambulances and paramedics won't solve the problem. 

He said a holistic approach to dealing with mental health and addictions is needed.

Provincial help needed: mayor

Mayor Keith Hobbs said a report done for police in 1994 showed Thunder Bay has the highest number of mental health and addiction related emergency calls per capita in Ontario. He added that he doesn't think that statistic has changed since then.

"This is where the LHIN, (Local Health Integrated Network) and the government need to get their act together a bit better and alleviate the burden," Hobbs said. "All kinds of things have been downloaded."

As a former police officer, the mayor said he remembers well dealing with mental health issues during front-line emergency services call — and he said he knows paramedics feel the pressure too.

Hobbs said the city is looking for support from the province to fund more mental health and addiction services.

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Thunder Bay paramedic Ryan Ross says just talking to people helps with understanding why some patients are struggling with mental health and addictions problems. (Jody Porter/CBC)

But there's little help on the horizon.

That leaves paramedics like Ryan Ross addressing the situation one conversation at a time.

"[I]

try to figure out why they're addicted to drugs, why they're abusing alcohol and I find that just talking to people you get a lot better perspective on what's going on," he said.

Ross said it helps him feel like he's making a small difference in solving a big problem.