First responders getting mental health clinic of their own

A research-based mental health clinic for paramedics, firefighters and police officers is set to open next year in Ottawa, the first of its kind in Canada.

Ottawa clinic, 1st of its kind in Canada, to open its doors in 2019

Ottawa firefighters, paramedics and police officers will soon have a mental clinic of their own to help them deal with the trauma many of them encounter on the job. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

When most of us go to work in the morning, there's little chance of facing a life-altering traumatic event.

But if you're a firefighter, police officer or paramedic, the odds you'll witness something terrible rise dramatically.

That's why mental health professionals in Ottawa are creating a first-of-its-kind, research-based clinic to help first responders deal with the workplace hazards that can cause post-traumatic stress, depression or suicide.

This project is a major stepping stone in the right direction.- Anthony Di Monte, GM, emergency and protective services

"First responders face a much greater risk of mental health issues and suicide than the general population, and they also face particular challenges in accessing support," said Dr. Simon Hatcher, the Ottawa Hospital psychiatrist who steered the study that set the stage for the clinic.

Set to open 2019, the clinic is being designed, in part, by the people who will use it — police, paramedics and firefighters were consulted about how they want their mental health services delivered.

"Our new research-based mental health clinic will establish and test a customized assessment program which could be a model for others to use," Hatcher said.

Dr. Simon Hatcher is one of the mental health professionals working to open the clinic for first responders in Ottawa.

Higher rates of depression, suicidal thoughts

According to the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment, 45 per cent of first responders in Canada have symptoms consistent with at least one mental health disorder. That's thought to be about four times higher than in the general population.

A related study found 28 per cent of first responders in Canada have experienced suicidal thoughts, about double the rate among the general population.

Ottawa's former paramedic chief, Anthony Di Monte — now the city's general manager of emergency and protective services — is welcoming the specialized clinic.

"This project is a major stepping stone in the right direction, and we are pleased to be working with partners that share our vision to provide emergency personnel with the support they need," Di Monte said.

Funding for the clinic, which will initially be able to serve about 40 clients, comes from the federal government's Canadian Safety and Security Program and the Ottawa Hospital. The City of providing in-kind support for the clinic.