Sask. first responders can now assess their own mental health online

A new confidential website is designed to get around the stigma of reporting mental health injuries.

'It's extremely important to know what your normal is, and then know where to go if things aren't normal'

Saskatchewan first responders can take an anonymous personal mental health assessment through a new website launched July 24, 2019. (Daniella Ponticelli/CBC)

People on the frontline of emergency response in Saskatchewan can now access their own lines of support, 24 hours a day.

A new website launched Wednesday allows first responders in the province to take confidential mental health checks to see how they're managing. 

From there, the site directs first responders to resources, including self-care education and strategies to deal with critical incidents.

"It's extremely important to know what your normal is, and then know where to go if things aren't normal, and how to access the resources," said Jeff Reeder, chair of the Saskatchewan First Responders' Mental Health Committee. 

The committee, along with WorkSafe Saskatchewan, partnered with the University of Regina to provide the self-assessment tools.

The site also lists phone numbers for 24/7 confidential support crisis lines and several organizations dedicated to supporting first responders and their families. 

I can't remember one time ever talking about mental health, ever talking about [the] resiliency of anybody that works in emergency services.-  Regina police chief Evan Bray on starting as an officer 24 years ago

Reeder has been a member of the Prince Albert Fire Department for the last 15 years.

He said he's dealt with his own mental health injuries, including post-traumatic stress, and believes he's a testament that first responders can heal.

"It's not a lifelong, debilitating illness or injury. Just sticking with it and getting access to treatment can get you back to work and functioning again," Reeder said.

Jeff Reeder chairs the Saskatchewan First Responders' Mental Health Committee, made up of representatives from police, fire, EMS, corrections, psychologists and the Workers' Compensation Board. (Daniella Ponticelli/CBC)

The new online supports were unveiled 11 months after Candace Curle's brother died by suicide. 

Robbie Curtis, a 37-year-old paramedic with the Regina Qu'Appelle Health Region, struggled for years with post-traumatic stress disorder before his death on Aug. 22, 2018.

"This accumulation of trauma and subsequent post-traumatic stress symptoms changed the way his brain worked," said Curle.

"He fought demons none of us could see for close to a decade." 

Online access crucial first step

Regina police chief Evan Bray said having the option for first responders, who often do shift work, to access resources at any hour is a big part of breaking down barriers to treatment.

The next hurdle is tackling the stigma still associated with seeking help. Bray said prevention education has come a long way since he started as an officer 24 years ago.

"I can't remember one time ever talking about mental health, ever talking about [the] resiliency of anybody that works in emergency services," Bray said. 

The police chief said it was seven years into his career when he first heard of a Saskatchewan officer diagnosed with PTSD.

Bray said the Regina Police Service is working to foster better communication so co-workers can be empowered to speak openly about challenges they feel and see.

"You know each other better than anyone else, so you can tell if someone's not acting right, if someone's off," he said. 

"Having those good, personal conversations is often step one."

More WCB mental health claims accepted

Kevin Mooney is the interim vice-president of prevention and employer services with the Saskatchewan Workers' Compenation Board (WCB).

He said the organization has seen a 75 per cent increase in accepted mental health claims in the last few years. 

"That number is still relatively low; it's probably a couple hundred claims compared to 22,000 we register every year for physical injuries," said Mooney. 

Mooney said the duration of WCB mental health claims are often double that of physical injuries, but noted the associated costs are anticipated to decrease over time if the issues are addressed earlier.

"That's why it's important to stress we have the self-assessments on [the website]," Mooney said. 

"To get help before it develops into an injury."

The WCB accepts mental health claims for workers in all occupations in Saskatchewan.