Question re: Post-traumatic stress disorder support - May 26, 2015

Mr. Silver: I have a question for the minister responsible for WCB. The issue of supporting first responders who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder has been raised a few times in this Legislature. I asked last fall if the government would consider changing legislation to make it easier for first responders to make a claim for PTSD. In subsequent discussions that I have had with first responders and with others, it has been suggested that a higher priority to focus on is access to health professionals to ensure a timely diagnosis. Our legislation might be just fine the way it is.

The main problem is that we do not have access to psychologists and psychiatrists to diagnosis PTSD quickly. We have heard of cases, for example, of individuals waiting for months, or even over a year, for a proper diagnosis.

What steps is the Workers’ Compensation taking to cut the waiting time to a more responsible level?

Hon. Mr. Dixon: First of all, I thank the member opposite for the question. It is a very important issue. It’s a topical one. It has received some very important recognition of late. I want to begin by expressing the great respect and appreciation that the Yukon government has for all of our EMS professionals and volunteers throughout the territory. We work hard within the department and have made a number of changes over the years to ensure that all of those first responders have access to the tools and supports that they need to best respond to their own challenges or issues as they arise.

We have a phased program in place to support all emergency staff and volunteer responders exposed to traumatic events, including post-traumatic stress and critical incident stress. This support includes defusings and debriefings, counselling services and workplace accommodation, when required. Community Services and the Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board continue to work together to prevent and identify stress reactions and to provide affected individuals with the assistance to deal with these types of stress.

As the member opposite noted, it is indeed a possibility that the solution to this issue is not a legislative one, but rather one of programming, support and continuing education with our first responders to understand the issues and to change the culture, to a certain extent, within the profession to one that allows people to express a challenge when they have one and to be vocal about the problems that they are facing.

Mr. Silver: Thank you to the minister for that response. I did want to focus a little bit on education and training. It has been flagged that improvement in education and training is certainly something that has been championed by the head of the Association of Yukon Fire Chiefs. The responsibility for training of EMS workers or first responders falls on the Department of Community Services. Can the minister draw down a little bit more on the training? What improvements, if any, are planned for the training of first responders to address the concerns that they themselves have been raising with respect to training?

Hon. Mr. Dixon: To be effective, workplace strategies to address response-related stress must focus on preventive measures such as increased responder awareness, early identification and immediate intervention within the work unit. That is exactly what we have tried to do — tried to ensure that individuals within the profession of first responders or EMS professionals and volunteers know that they have the supports in place to address challenges as they arise, and that they are comfortable raising them.

I started to mention in my last response that one of the important things that needs to evolve within the profession is a bit of a change in the culture. Previously there was a bit of sense that you didn’t talk about these issues. You put your head down and you got back to work. That is beginning to change as we learn more about these stress incidents. We are trying our best within the department to educate our first responders, to make them aware that supports do exist and that it is okay to ask for help and it is okay to deal with these challenging issues as they arise. We will continue to work with the EMS providers, both professional and volunteer, to ensure that they have the supports necessary to both recognize these issues and address them.

Mr. Silver: I think all the members of this House can agree on the value of the work that first responders take on in our communities. We should be doing all that we possibly can to help them perform their duties to the best of their abilities. That should mean also timely diagnoses of PTSD, if it occurs, and that proper training and education are in place.

There are very few resources in place to ward off PTSD before it manifests itself. Employers, supervisors and workers are legally obligated to identify hazards and to establish plans to minimize their effects. This should be a focus. The focus should be on prevention. We don’t want the first responders to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder in the first place, so we have to get a trauma team together in place to help our first responders after a terrible call. Rural fire halls, ambulance stations and RCMP stations have little access to some of these resources currently. We should have psychiatrists in place to ensure prompt diagnosis as well.

Speaker: Order please. The member’s time has elapsed.

Hon. Mr. Dixon: I believe where the member was going was access to training and education in rural communities, so that’s what I’ll respond to.

We have increased training and access to these services in rural communities over the years. We’re in the process of providing a new system of on-line training so that EMS responders can access the training and educational materials they need without leaving their communities as often as they previously had to.

As I indicated before, it’s very important that individuals know that there are supports in place, that there are counselling services and other types of psychological or psychiatric services available and that they can access them. They don’t need to worry about any sort of stigma that’s associated with that. They can talk about these issues. They can raise them within their work unit, either through the Department of Community Services and the structures therein or through WCB.

Those two departments, the Department of Community Services and WCB, will continue to work together to ensure that training, education and information are available to all our first responders and ensure that, regardless of where those first responders are in the territory, they have access to adequate supports.

We’ll continue working with those responders throughout the Yukon to do so.