Training helps paramedics spot PTSD as claims rise

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A team of Grey County paramedics are about to start a new kind of training — one they hope will make a difference in the lives of their fellow first responders.


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Next week, they will team up with a psychologist to learn how to identify and deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and operational stress, which adversely affects many parademics.

“It will be about instant debriefing, how to access available resources and best practices for dealing with traumatic stress,” Kevin McNab, director of paramedic services, said in an interview Tuesday.

The training comes at a time when Grey County paramedic services has seen an uptick in PTSD claims from paramedics.

Only one claim was made in 2016, but that jumped to four in 2017, then 11 in 2018. There have been two so far in 2019.

But McNab said the rise in claims is likely associated with the passage of the Supporting Ontario’s First Responders Act in April 2016, as opposed to an increase in the actual number of first responders suffering from PTSD or operational stress.

The act states that a PTSD diagnosis is presumed to be work-related, providing easier access to workplace insurance benefits, treatment and other resources.

“Essentially, what it does is give them access to what they need to get better,” said McNab.

The act also requires employers of first responders to have a PTSD prevention plan.

Grey County officially implemented their plan in 2017, but it is still evolving. McNab said adding a consulting psychologist is just one part of a more comprehensive response.

“To address this you have to look at the continuum. The prevention in the first place … and if need be our commitment to get people to see a professional,” he said.


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“The earlier they can get care the better, and we want to make sure they have access to that.”

Several prevention and early intervention programs are currently in place at the paramedics services.

One of them is a peer support team — a group of colleagues that any paramedic can approach about issues involving traumatic stress. But these are not the only people someone can reach out to: McNab said increased awareness of the issue means they can approach virtually anyone in the service for help.

Technology is assisting in the fight against PTSD as well.

Grey County is one of the first places in Ontario to test a new system that can identify potential cases of stress through “problem codes” that are inputted into an electronic charting system, according to McNab.

When a paramedic is involved in an incident that may cause traumatic stress — such as aiding someone with cardiac arrest — the system sends a message to the support team and supervisors.

Paramedics are identified, then a follow-up occurs.

“We don’t want to miss somebody who may have benefited from being contacted by the peer support team … it’s a safety net to capture people we might miss,” McNab said.

First responders experience higher rates of PTSD than most professions, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. Symptoms can be debilitating: problems sleeping, constant irritability, depression and mood swings.

“We will have people that get post-traumatic stress disorder, but our goal is to prevent that in the first place,” said McNab.


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Despite the sharp increase of PTSD claims by paramedics in 2018, McNab says it never affected service.

If someone takes a medical leave, Grey County draws from a pool of part-time staff to “fill the void.”

The county has 71 full-time and around 55 part-time paramedics spread across eight ambulance stations. Up to 10 ambulances are staffed during peak hours.

McNab added that they understand that recovery time can vary greatly from person to person when it comes to PTSD, depending on how stress affects them.

“It’s not like a broken leg,” he said.

Some paramedics can continue to work with symptoms of operational stress, while receiving care on the job.

A mid-year financial report from Grey County states that the “biggest cost driver” for the worker’s compensation budget is “the large number of PTSD/Traumatic Mental Stress claim costs in paramedic services” and that this “reaffirms the need for the peer support and early intervention.”

Regardless, McNab made it clear he does not want cost to factor into anyone’s decision to come forward about mental health issues.

“Our commitment at Grey County is that if you require care for early intervention for PTSD or operational stress, regardless of whether WSIB approves it, we will pay for it.”

He hopes the increased awareness and understanding of PTSD that comes from training will lead to more paramedic seeking help.

“We always have to be looking to improve and do better, the care that we offer today could be different five years from now because we’ll have more information.”

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