Increase in mental-health claims reported by B.C. police, other first responders

Retiring B.C. Mountie says he heard from dozens of first responders since sharing his story of mental-health challenges with Postmedia News last year

Vancouver Sun 4 minute read October 7, 2021

Staff Sgt Major John Buis is on medical leave because of PTSD, which he developed over his 43-year policing career. Francis Georgian / PNG

Claims reported for psychological injuries have risen dramatically in recent years across many of B.C.’s emergency response occupations, according to both personal anecdotes and official statistics.

Labour representatives and experts say that while some of the increases seem dramatic, the trend reflects more front-line workers feeling comfortable seeking help, though more awareness and support is needed.

According to WorkSafeBC, psychological injury claims reported from law enforcement more than tripled year-over-year, from 72 claims in 2019 to 222 last year. This came at a time when the number of mental-health-related WorkSafeBC claims reported across all sectors actually decreased slightly.

“You can look at these numbers two ways,” said Ralph Kaisers, president of the B.C. Police Association, a labour group representing more than 3,000 front-line police officers in B.C. While it seems alarming to see so many more claims related to psychological injuries, it also means more front-line workers are seeking, and in many cases accessing, the help they need, Kaisers said, “which is huge.”

Kaisers is a member of the B.C. First Responders Mental Health Committee, along with labour and employer representatives from police, fire, ambulance and the Canada Border Services Agency. Across all those sectors, he said, he predicts mental-health claims “will continue going up year-over-year.”

“A lot of it was already there, but it was just going unreported,” he said. “There still is stigma. There still are members that are suffering that aren’t coming forward. But I think we’re slowly getting to a place where when people need help, they’re actually asking for help.”

In 2018, the Workers’ Compensation Act was amended so that when an emergency worker is exposed to traumatic events in their work and diagnosed with what WorkSafeBC calls a “mental disorder,” or psychological injury, the disorder is presumed to be caused by employment. Since then, the number of mental-health-related claims reported has increased dramatically in several of those occupations, including nurses, nurse aides, police and emergency dispatchers. (Claims haven’t, however, increased for firefighters.)

WorkSafeBC says part of that significant increase in law enforcement claims is due to employers reporting traumatic events to the agency, whether or not any workers have yet submitted a claim for a mental disorder. But the numbers also show more emergency workers in some categories successfully pursuing claims: between 2019 and last year, the number of allowed mental-health claims from police officers increased by 30 per cent, while they shot up almost 50 per cent for nurse aides and orderlies.

WorkSafeBC handles claims from municipal police departments, but not for RCMP officers. RCMP statistics weren’t immediately available.

Burnaby RCMP Staff Sgt. Major John Buis went public last year, with a feature story in The Province, with his own challenges with post-traumatic stress disorder, hoping to encourage other first-responders to seek help when they need it. Buis was diagnosed with PTSD in 2019, after more than four decades on the job, which included overseas peacekeeping tours, losing colleagues on the job and to suicide, and being shot and nearly killed in the line of duty as a 25-year-old Mountie in 1979.

Buis’s story appears to have had an impact. Reached this week, Buis said that in the 18 months since The Province feature ran, he has heard from dozens of first-responders — mostly police, but also firefighters and paramedics — telling him his story helped push them to address their own issues, including seeking professional help.

On Wednesday, which marked the final day of Buis’s 44-year career as a Mountie, he said: “One of the philosophies I’ve had throughout my service is: ‘How am I going to help the people I serve better?’ … By doing that article, I was able to pay it forward to a couple of people, hopefully.”

The increase in claims for 2020 might partly reflect the additional stressors of COVID-19 and continuing drug-overdose crisis, said Sean Gjos, founder of Boreal Wellness, a clinic in Vancouver that has run first-responder-focused trauma groups. But, he said, they also reflect broader trends.

Awareness of mental health has improved in the public, Gjos said, “and the first-responder community, specifically, are doing a much better job of normalizing this.”

“They’re so used to being the go-to, the doers, the helpers. So it can be really challenging to raise your hand and ask for help,” Gjos said. “It, so often, historically had been viewed as a sign of weakness, when really it’s a sign of strength.”