'Traumatic event' claims quintupled among Ottawa police after PTSD law enacted

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Ottawa's police chief says the number of workplace safety claims related to "traumatic events" has increased five-fold since Ontario's First Responders Act came into effect in April of last year.

The 2016 law presumes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a work-related injury for first responders, allowing for faster access to Workplace Safety and Insurance Bureau benefits for police, paramedics and firefighters.

Chief Charles Bordeleau revealed at a meeting of the human resources committee of the Ottawa Police Services Board Monday that the number of claims from police officers in this city quintupled from four in 2015 to 20 in 2016.

"I think we knew when the legislation came in we would see those numbers increase, which is a good thing because we want people to declare and we want people to get the help they need," he told the committee.

Bordeleau said the police service is working on creating a culture that encourages employees to come forward if they have mental health problems. He said the latest figures don't necessarily represent PTSD-related claims exclusively, but could involve other mental health issues that fall under the legislation.

The Ottawa Police Assocation says PTSD claims were mainly covered under long-term disability insurance before the law changed how the WSIB treated those claims.

The chief was speaking during a meeting to approve a PTSD prevention plan, which now heads to the next full meeting of the Ottawa Police Services Board later this month.

Prevention vs. mitigation

The prevention plan is required under the new provincial law. The chief expressed some reluctance about the name of the plan, though he agreed with its intention.

"You can't prevent PTSD, you want to do things to mitigate it," Bordeleau said after the meeting. "It's just the nature of the business that policing is in: we go to traumatic incidents."

Angela Slobodian, acting director of wellness for the Ottawa Police Service, said one of the objectives of the plan is to educate supervisors, co-workers and families about how to recognize the signs of a mental health issue.

"All we can do is look at ways we can mitigate the impact [of PTSD]," Slobodian told CBC.

"It would be ideal if we could prevent it, but I think we're realistic to know that everyone, what they come to the service with is their own personal history and experiences in life and that will make an impact on how they may respond."

The proposed plan includes hiring two sergeants as part of the police workplace wellness program by 2017, a peer-support coordinator and a resiliency coordinator.

Ottawa police are also developing training programs to help people cope with and identify mental health problems related to trauma and workplace stress.

Slobodian said one of the main goals is earlier intervention, which may lead to more claims or time off work, but may also mean shorter work interruptions and better long-term results.

Mental health a safety issue

Bordeleau said fears that coming forward with mental health issues could hinder career advancement have made the conversation a difficult one among first responders.

"It's a harder nut to crack," he told the committee. "We've had suicides in our police service where actions could have been taken ahead of time to prevent them. So there's a lot of different dynamics placing our industry around mental wellness and the stigma attached to it."

The PTSD prevention plan will be presented at the Ottawa Police Services Board's next meeting March 27.

The plan has to be submitted to the province for final approval before the end of April.