It’s an alarming trend that first caught the attention of Victoria deputy fire chief Daniel Atkinson in 2013.
A sharp increase in mental health issues was occurring among first responders, leading to an increase in suicides, marital problems, anxiety and other disorders.
In the past few years, some members of the Victoria Fire Department have had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) claims approved through WorkSafeBC. Atkinson fears it’ll only get worse as firefighters struggle to keep up with the ballooning calls for drug overdoses, which now average between 60 to 70 per month compared with six to seven in 2015.
“When I started reviewing the call volume it was just shock,” said Atkinson, who noticed the sharp spike in overdose calls at the beginning of 2016.
May was especially bad, he added, with firefighters responding to 20 overdose calls within a 24-hour period. During that same month, Victoria became one of the first fire departments to begin carrying naloxone — a medication that reverses the effects of an overdose from opioids such as heroin, methadone or morphine by restoring breathing within two to five minutes.
The increase in overdose calls are taking a toll on those who respond, prompting the department to partner with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) to provide resiliency training and support for first responders.
So far 13 Victoria members have become certified as instructors through CMHA and can deliver programs to other firefighters throughout the capital region. The trained instructors work with a local mental health professional to lead first responders through skill building workshops that provide comprehensive information on trauma, mental health problems and resiliency.
The goal, noted Atkinson, is to give first responders a personal toolkit to increase mental health literacy, encourage early access to care and strengthen the psychological health of first responders before it’s too late.
“Traditionally, we’ve always looked at post traumatic incident care with respect to our firefighters…so what we’re doing now is starting to put some of the focus on pre-incident care,” said Atkinson. “Rather than wait for a problem to really become large in scale, we wanted to get in front of the curve and address it sooner than later.”
By the end of 2017, all members of the department will receive the first round of training, which will take place every year to build and maintain mental health resiliency.