Paramedic Crisis: ‘You will get some sort of mental health injury, it’s just a matter of time’

Paramedic Crisis: 'You will get some sort of mental health injury, it’s just a matter of time'
WatchWATCH: Paramedic speaks out about an alarming number of mental health injuries, which have increased during COVID. Tess van Straaten reports.

Responding to accident scenes, critical injuries, and fatalities can take a big toll on a paramedic and the call-takers and dispatchers on the other end of the line.

“In this occupation, you will get an injury,” says Warren Leeder, a paramedic and the mental health and wellness coordinator for the union. “You will get some sort of mental health injury — it’s just a matter of time.”

But added pressure from staffing shortages and the COVID-19 pandemic is making it even worse.

“We know it’s a tough job and then when you add the stresses, the fatigue, and the additional workload, it’s really having an impact,” says Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. and Emergency Dispatchers of B.C. CUPE Local 873 provincial president Troy Clifford.

The union says close to 25 per cent of members are now off on WorkSafe claims or seeking mental health supports.

“We’re seeing more and more people booking off on stress leave,” a dispatcher told CHEK News on the condition that we protect their identity. “I’ve had to book off myself. There’s only so many calls you can take in a shift.”

Critical incident team activations after traumatic calls sky-rocketed in April of 2020, in the early days of the pandemic.

There were 232 activations compared to 130 in April of 2019 — an increase of almost 80 per cent.

The total tally for 2020 was 2,404 activations. That’s 628 more than the 1,776  recorded in 2019.

The union sounded the alarm last August in a letter outlining mental health concerns for paramedics during COVID-19 and pleaded for more mental health supports.

Paramedics and the union says it’s even worse now and they fear it will get even worse when the COVID crisis is over.

“When people start to see the end in sight, they drop their shoulders a bit and that’s when mental health injuries really start to appear,” Leeder says. “We are really anticipating a flood or a tsunami of mental health issues coming through the door,” Leeder says.

But B.C. Ambulance says part of the problem is people being afraid to ask for help.

“There is still a lot of stigma around mental injuries but it has changed and it is coming along,” says Lance Stephenson, the Vancouver Island director for B.C. Emergency Health Services. “It will be a few years yet before we completely dial it in.”

Leeder, an almost 20-year-veteran, is now making it his mission to end the stigma.

“They get a mental injury and that’s considered weak so if I could change that, that would be very meaningful,” he says, becoming emotional.

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Tess van StraatenTess van Straaten

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