British Columbia

Under-pressure first responders urged to reach out for mental health support

As COVID-19 and the opioid crisis continue to claim the lives of British Columbians, one Metro Vancouver firefighter who does double duty as a clinical counsellor is reminding his first responder colleagues mental health help can be only a click away.

First Responder Health is an online database co-founded by firefighter and clinical counsellor Matt Johnston

A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic is pictured outside of St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, British Columbia on Wednesday, June 30, 2021.
A paramedic outside St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver on June 30. First responders in B.C. are in the midst of trying to save people from both a deadly virus and deadly street drugs and one of their own is reminding them there are professionals available to help them cope. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

As British Columbia first responders continue to battle two simultaneous public health emergencies, one of their own is reminding his colleagues in the field that mental health help is only a click away.

Matt Johnston is a Lower Mainland firefighter, a registered clinical counsellor and the co-founder of First Responder Health — an educational company that specializes in training health care providers on how to work with public safety personnel experiencing mental health issues.

By accessing the company's website, first responders can connect with a directory of specially trained mental health professionals across the province. 

The directory is open to the public, meaning partners and children of first responders can also access the resource.

With the stress of the opioid crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic taking its toll on B.C. first responders, Johnston hopes those suffering from the stresses of the job will reach out.

First responders attend to a person suffering from a suspected overdose in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver on May 11, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

First responders from all fields are twice as likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder than other Canadians, according to the Centre for Suicide Prevention. The suicide rate among paramedics, according to Statistics Canada, is five times higher than the national average of 11.3 deaths per 100,000 people.

Johnston says the B.C. government has to step up with more support for first responders.

"It's a pandemic and if the trend of suicides across public safety personnel doesn't do it, I'm not sure what needs to be in place for that to happen," Johnston told CBC's The Early Edition Wednesday.

Clinicians listed on the website were immersed in training classrooms to understand the pressures and culture of first responders. For example, in one two-day seminar, the clinicians would listen in to the calls coming in on the speakers in a fire hall.

"First responders are trained in a stoic paramilitary work system [that] many civilian health-care providers have no idea how to deal with," said Johnston. "That's a major gap that I really hope the province of B.C. can address in the coming years."

To access mental health resources for B.C. first responders, visit

With files from The Early Edition