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Cost of coping


There's an old game some of us used to play as kids: "Your house is on fire and you have time to grab one thing. What do you save?" and its variant, "What would you run into a burning building to save?"

It was an exercise to make us think about what's most important to us or what gives us the most joy, and a reminder of sorts that many of the possessions we have are just stuff – stuff we could live without if we needed to.

It was a fun question. After all, it was just a game.

Now imagine you're a first responder on your way to a structure fire. Maybe it's the house of someone you know, or a business you've shopped at. Or maybe you're responding to a car accident, and you know it's a bad one. Maybe you're responding to a sudden death, or a violent death, or an injury. Maybe you're a 911 operator and all you can do is stay on the line with someone in crisis.

After you have done your job, maybe you find it hard to go home and play with your kids, or maybe you have nightmares about what happened (or what could have happened). Maybe you just find yourself on edge and easily triggered by daily occurrences, or your work performance starts dropping because you're finding it difficult to cope with what you've witnessed.

That's called a mental injury, and it robs people of their mental (and sometimes physical) health if it's not treated properly.

A 2017 study in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry that surveyed close to 6,000 firefighters, police, paramedics and 911 dispatchers found 44.5 per cent showed symptoms consistent with one or more mental disorders. Here in St. Albert, we count the cost of mental injuries in budgetary terms: last year, the city spent $1.5 million for overtime shifts – three times what it had budgeted – in part due to mental injuries among firefighters.

St. Albert Fire Fighters Union president Warren Gresik told the Gazette departments are playing catch up on mental health supports – although there have been some major steps forward over the years, such as in 2012, when changes to the Workers' Compensation Board gave firefighters presumptive coverage. Thankfully, as mental health is viewed as increasingly important, more firefighters have been able to access the help they need. The city is also addressing the issue through various methods, including a mental health peer support team, a mental health training program for firefighters and a mental health first aid program that's currently being developed for the entire organization.

These efforts are vital to helping people through the trauma that comes along with their chosen profession, but Gresik believes more needs to be done – for example, a consistent reintegration program for members returning to work after being treated for mental injuries could help reduce absenteeism.

When someone experiences a physical injury, they know where to go for help. And while help exists for mental injuries, our house is still burning and first responders are paying the price. Our city has the hoses up and more units are on the way, but we can't let up until the flames are extinguished.