My speech on PTSD coverage for Emergency Responders

October 8, 2014

Bill No. 11 – Workers’ Compensation Act.

DAVID WILSON: Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to stand today and talk about Bill No. 11. I was contemplating with our caucus, when we were trying to figure out which bills to bring forward – I know part of me is saying, well maybe I shouldn’t bring it forward because on Opposition Day, a majority of the time the government will talk out the time and not allow a vote on this bill. But I felt compelled with the correspondence that I’ve received over the last week and a half, the attention that’s around this issue, that I felt I was okay with that. If the government will talk out the time, that’s fine, it doesn’t mean that I can’t call it back again at another sitting.

I felt compelled that it was important to continue to bring awareness around an issue that we need to act on, that government needs to act on, and that is around recognizing that PTSD affects so many men and women, not only in our own province but across the country. It’s no secret that my background is as a paramedic and I often draw from that, Mr. Speaker, what I bring forward as an MLA when it comes to legislation, but this piece of legislation is just right. It’s the right thing to do; it’s the right thing to act on. I hope the government, if they choose not to support this today, really makes an attempt at improving the conditions and the support that is given to our men and women here in Nova Scotia who are emergency responders.

Mr. Speaker, this is not just about paramedics; this is about firefighters, dispatchers, police officers, registered nurses. This is about correctional service officers and social workers who work in Children and Family Services.

The reason I ensured that all these workers were covered under this piece of legislation is because each and every one of them are exposed to events and experiences that most Nova Scotians don’t see in their career in their daily lives, stuff that most Nova Scotians wouldn’t want to see. I think you do, at times, need to be quite frank around this issue and around the situation about PTSD.

These workers see, on a daily basis, Mr. Speaker – take firefighters who go to motor vehicle accidents – they see traumatic injuries. They go to house fires and they see burn victims who survive with severe burns and they see people who are deceased. You see police officers who respond to the same calls. They see gunshots, they see assaults; they see things that most Nova Scotians would tell you that they couldn’t handle.

Mr. Speaker, this illness is something that I think, over the last number of months, and maybe over the last couple of years, has been getting more and more attention. PTSD is something that we need to take seriously; we need to look at ensuring that people who need the support of government and government programs receive it.

I want to recognize the Minister of Health and Wellness, the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education, and the Premier who came up to me after I introduced this legislation last week and said thank you for bringing that forward; it’s an important issue. The Minister of Health and Wellness has asked me to sit on a committee to try to move things forward and I’m very happy to do that, Mr. Speaker. I’ll commit right now that my political affiliation, my political hat will be left at the door. I want to make sure that whatever goes on into the future on the changes that support our men and women who are on call every day and every hour and every minute, get the support they need.

It was until this summer, Mr. Speaker, I assumed, like many, workers in this province were covered under Workers’ Compensation around PTSD – and they are but it’s limited. I was given some information from a gentleman named Vince Savoia who is with a national organization called TEMA and they are working to bring awareness around PTSD and I know that they have some close relationships with some advocates here in Nova Scotia, firefighters, for example, who have been working with that organization. I know the firefighters in Halifax have a support unit that they try to support their fellow colleagues when they find themselves in difficult times, not only with PTSD but others.

It took me to look at what we do and what we cover here and I realized pretty quickly that we do cover workers under Workers’ Compensation if they find themselves diagnosed with PTSD after a traumatic event. That’s the problem – “after a traumatic event”, Mr. Speaker. WCB is really set up that if you have an injury you make note of it and then you’re covered down the road if you have any complications of it. So if you fall down on the job, you hurt your knee, you do a Workers’ Compensation form, and six months, a year later, you need surgery, you can say okay that was caused by the fall and then you go on.

The problem with the definition of PTSD and a traumatic event is that many of these men and women in the professions that I just announced see on a daily basis, on a weekly basis, on a monthly basis, accumulative traumatic events. They go to call after call after call, over weeks, over months, over years, and it may not be evident after a single event that someone can’t cope with it, Mr. Speaker, it may be years down the road where they attend maybe even a minor event that triggers the symptoms of PTSD – and they’re not easy to deal with.

The sad part about all this is that many – and I know them personally, Mr. Speaker – many men and women who find themselves in the positon where they’re struggling to cope with this choose to turn to alcohol, for example. That is one thing that happens. Myself, personally, you know we had platoon parties every month or so where the platoon got out and we went to a local establishment and had a few drinks, talked about the crazy stuff that we’d seen in the last month and that helped. I’m not saying that it doesn’t help, but it doesn’t help in every case. Often these men and women are choosing to turn to prescription drugs or illegal drugs to try to cope with what they’re dealing with.

But far too many, Mr. Speaker, far too many turn to suicide and they take their own lives. In the last six months – just six months, Mr. Speaker – in Canada over 23 emergency responders have taken their own lives, and that number reflects Nova Scotians. We might feel we’re a small province and it doesn’t happen here, but it does. At least a half-dozen individuals I have known and worked with over the last – well it would have been almost 20 years I’d be in the business as a medic if I didn’t get into being an elected official, over a half-dozen medics that I know have taken that choice and that way out to deal with this.

That’s something that we need to address, we need to talk about it, we need to ensure that people who are struggling don’t have to worry about where their next pay is – these people, these men and women I mention who are providing the care for Nova Scotians, they’re not getting rich doing it. Many of them live paycheque to paycheque and part of the struggle when someone is trying to decide if they need to go get some help or take some time off is I can’t do that, I need to have a pay – and if they’re not able to gain access to Workers’ Compensation then I know they stay on the job, they continue to put themselves in an environment that is hurting them, and that’s what we need to change – and I’m asking the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education, I’m asking the government to immediately look at this. Make that change – make that one change right now. We can continue to look at where the gaps are when we’re dealing with who is able to gain access to Workers’ Compensation. I know volunteer fire departments usually aren’t able to gain access because they don’t pay into Workers’ Compensation. Search and rescue individuals – that’s a separate issue, it’s an important issue.

But I know right now, the government could immediately improve the ability for the men and women who unfortunately are diagnosed with PTSD to at least take that one worry off their plate – where will my next pay come from – and then go and seek the help they need. That is where I know we need to do a lot of work.

There is a huge stigma to PTSD, huge stigma to it. My training back in the early 1990s, there was nothing about PTSD. I don’t believe there was really anything about coping with what I was about to see when I graduated. I can tell you today – I said this this morning on the Global Morning News – I had the opportunity to talk on that this morning. I said this – I think I said it for the first time – I said, I’m one of the fortunate ones, where I’ve had a break. I was a paramedic almost nine years and I saw a lot of stuff in just that short nine years. I said, I can’t imagine – I’ve had a break. I’ve been 11 years off the trucks, been a registered paramedic for a number of years after that, but pretty much 11 years where I’ve been able to say I’ve had a break from this.

Some of my colleagues, some of my friends, haven’t had that. Some of them, it would be 20 years exposed to the calls. It’s not a sign of weakness if they choose that they need a break, they need to take some time off. All I’m asking for is that the government recognize that, that they see that these men and women are human. TEMA has a saying now – there’s a campaign going on that I think says it as simply as it can be, that our heroes are human too. We often think of those men and women; those firefighters, police officers, dispatchers, nurses, correctional services, social workers, who deal with stuff that most people don’t want to deal with, are heroes. They make a difference in people’s lives. They treat people every day and what we need to do is make sure we can treat them, that they can go and get the treatment that they need.

I know, Mr. Speaker, if you add the possibility of people getting into or accessing Workers’ Compensation, that there is a cost to that. I understand that. But I don’t think it’s a huge cost. If they’re able to get it now, there are not going to be floodgates, I can tell you. The pride thing is there still. There are not going to be floodgates that we’re going to see thousands of emergency workers all of a sudden saying, get me on workers’ compensation. We’re not going to see that. We might see that one or two additional woman or man who will finally say, you know what? After 20 years of seeing this, I am a bit frazzled by the things that I’ve seen. I do need to get some support. At least now I can go and not have one thing to worry about and that is the pay that goes along with that.

I hope that the government recognizes that. We need to work towards ensuring that these men and women who give so much and are on duty today in every part of this province that we need to be there for them. That’s really the essence of this bill. It’s not politically motivated. It’s just the right thing to do. I think I’ve said this before: we need to protect those who protect us. I hope the government will consider this. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.