British Columbia

B.C. government to make it easier for 1st responders to make PTSD claims

The B.C. government is planning to make legislative changes that will make it easier for first responders to make post-traumatic stress disorder worker compensation claims.

First responders in B.C. have to prove PTSD was caused by job to make compensation claim

A 'presumptive clause' in the Workers Compensation Act would make it easier for first responders to get PTSD claims approved by WorkSafe B.C. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Since former paramedic Lisa Jennings's life fell apart after a PTSD-triggering incident on the job in 2014, she's been pushing for better support for first responders. Three years later, the B.C. government is finally planning to change the law to make that happen.

Jennings and others have been urging the province to add a so-called 'presumptive clause' to the Workers Compensation Act, meaning first responders wouldn't have to prove that their post-traumatic stress disorder is a result of the job.

It would be understood that first responders are routinely exposed to traumatic events that could trigger PTSD.

'Help is on the way,' says minister

Labour Minister Harry Bains says changes, including the addition of the presumptive clause — already a part of law in other provinces, including Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario — are in now the works.

"Help is on the way. As soon as we can put the legislation together, we are going to proceed with this," said Bains.

"Every day is too long for those who are suffering, it's a very, very stressful and serious illness — they need help now. Some help is available now through WorkSafe, although many people are not satisfied and I understand that," he said.

"It is a very, very serious situation and I acknowledge that.

"I acknowledge many good people have lost their lives as a result of this, and no worker and their family should be subject to that," said Bains.

Bains added that changes will aim to emphasize prevention, hopefully leading to fewer cases of PTSD.

Lives being lost

Jennings said she became suicidal in the throes of PTSD when she was living out of her vehicle and fighting a drawn-out battle with WorkSafe to prove her condition was a result of her job.

She has been working with other first responders with PTSD and their families through her group, You Are Not Alone PTSD B.C.

She has been collecting data from police and fire departments, as well as families of first responders who have taken their own lives.

While her accounts can't be corroborated by CBC News because Jennings maintains confidentiality with her network, she says a majority of first responders who took their lives this year had PTSD WorkSafe B.C. claims denied or delayed.

"How many of us have to die before people realize we're sick? When you're calling 9-1-1, we're going to be there, and we're killing ourselves to do it," said Jennings of paramedics.

"We're killing ourselves to save lives."

"We need the presumptive clause and we need it now," she said.

WorkSafe B.C. reported 133 PTSD claims from first responders in 2016. There are a few different ways for claims to be resolved, but 66 claims were allowed and 20 were denied.

The organization reports that by cross-referencing mental health disorder files dating back to 2012 with B.C. Vital Statistics data, WorkSafe identified no first responder deaths by suicide.

In a statement, WorkSafe B.C. said it provides various supports for workers who are suicidal or struggling psychologically, including a 24-hour crisis line for injured workers and their families.

Group researching first responder PTSD

An Ontario-based group, Tema, which supports public safety workers and their families who are experiencing mental health issues, tries to track first responder suicides. The group relies on reports from various sources across the country, including media, families and advocates like Jennings.

Based on these reports, Tema estimates, in 2016, 19 of Canada's 33,500 paramedics took their own lives. Tema estimates that suicide rate is roughly five times higher than that of the general population.

WorkSafe B.C. said it does not accept Tema's statistics. A spokesperson said "their numbers were based on anecdotal information and are not independently validated."

However, Tema maintains each individual case it reports is based on claims made by multiple friends, colleagues, and family members.

'Cost isn't going to stop me'

Bains said he's consulted WorkSafe B.C. and believes any additional cost due to an increase in approved claims won't be a problem.

"Cost isn't going to stop me because the priority of the workers health and safety is the number one priority," he said.

Bains declined to give a specific timeline for his new bill.

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