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EDITORIAL: Mental-health deck is stacked against our first responders

Mental-health struggles must be as acceptable in the first-responder workplace as physical injuries from being at the scene of a collision or a structural fire.

On Nov. 12, our city mourned the loss of fallen firefighter Warren Hillier. Hillier struggled with mental health and, tragically, chose to end his life.

His widow, Michele, has been candid about how their family was impacted by his struggles, and how proper supports — necessary for first responders and their families — were missing along the way.

St. Albert fire services has also vowed to work tirelessly to make sure what happened to Hillier will not happen to others.

Greg Harvey, president of St. Albert Fire Services Local 2130, said Hillier's death has highlighted the need for change in the department, as the supports offered to first responders aren't enough.

Firefighters face a 30-per-cent higher rate of suicide than the general population, according to the Canadian Association of Mental Health, and aren't trained with the tools to help them protect their mental health.

Twenty-two per cent of paramedics develop PTSD, according to the Canadian Centre for Suicide Prevention.

In St. Albert, fire and paramedic units are integrated, with firefighters trained as EMTs.

Right out of the gate, the mental-health deck is stacked against them.

On top of that, calls have increased during the pandemic, which is taking its toll, along with a growing opioid crisis and ongoing staff shortages, meaning longer shifts, and more exposure to the daily trauma of being a first responder.

Although St. Albert offers a peer support team, and a clinician for guidance, shockingly, firefighters who don't have a diagnosis for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) only receive coverage for three visits to a psychologist each year.

Three sessions. It's hardly enough for the kinds of traumatic scenes they respond to, and the regular dangers they face.

What's worse is the age-old stigma that prevents many from seeking supports, and the lingering fear of a PTSD label, which can spell time away from work without the ability to support their families, and a significant impact on a member's career.

Though the city has had an average of 10 employees out of the 130 fire service members out on occupational and non-occupational long-term absences over the past three years, that number could likely be higher if those who needed support felt secure enough to reach out.

This, inherently, appears to be the department's biggest barrier — combating stigma and offering more support, earlier, so members such as Hillier don't spiral downward so deeply it's too late.

Perhaps if support came in the form of regular access to counselling, without a damaging label, it would normalize mental-health support for first responders.

Along with that must also come a cultural shift from the top down — an effort to make mental-health struggles as acceptable in the first-responder workplace as physical injuries from being at the scene of a collision or a structural fire.

And continued grassroots support from the bottom up. 

Dr. Nicola Cherry, a researcher at the University of Alberta, said peer-support groups like the one offered in St. Albert are a key tool in support for first responders, as mental-health workers don't have the relatable lived experience many need to open up and access support early — an important facet of successful treatment.

Thankfully, things have begun to shift. 

Emergency responders are becoming more open about what they face. Hillier's death has become the catalyst for change.
The night of his funeral, many gathered to share stories of their worst calls, and lean on each other for support.

This is true bravery, and a signal to leadership that more must be done.

Editorials are the consensus view of the St. Albert Gazette’s editorial board.