Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the committee, for inviting us to discuss our ministerial round table on post-traumatic stress disorder.
My name is Lori MacDonald, and I am the assistant deputy minister of the Emergency Management and Programs Branch at Public Safety Canada.
I would like to introduce my colleague, Michael DeJong, who is the senior director of the Policy and Outreach Directorate in the Emergency Management and Programs Branch.
As you are aware, Public Safety Canada hosted the ministerial round table at the University of Regina on January 29, 2016. I want to provide a brief overview of the round table, its outcomes, and next steps.
The round table was attended by over 50 participants, including senior representatives from the police, fire, and paramedic organizations, as well as union representatives from these services.
Other representatives included the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Mr. Michel Picard; cabinet ministers from Saskatchewan, including the minister of Corrections and Policing, the minister of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety, and the minister of Health; and senior officials from the federal family, including the Public Safety Canada portfolio, the Health portfolio, the Department of National Defence, and Veterans Affairs Canada.
We were also pleased to be joined by leading academics, some of whom have already testified before this committee.
The Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness actually opened the day with his video remarks. He was in La Loche that day supporting a community trying to heal from the shootings that killed four individuals and wounded seven others.
The intent of this roundtable was to hear from the experts and stakeholders about the problem definition, and discuss options for assessment, treatment and long-term care of public safety personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress, or PTSD.
Round table participants also stressed that PTSD is just part of the spectrum of operational stress injuries or OSIs, which are defined as persistent psychological difficulties resulting from operational duties.
We learned that many public safety organizations, including those at the round table, have implemented a number of initiatives such as peer support, employee assistance programs, and the road to mental health readiness program to help address the issue. A federal role is needed to help support public safety organizations big and small to tackle this complex problem through a more unified approach.
Within the public safety portfolio, the RCMP has undertaken several measure to increase understanding of PTSD and OSIs and to reduce stigma. Going forward in our work we will look for similar opportunities to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues across a full range of public safety officer communities.
Prevalence of PTSD among public safety officers is hard to track, partly due to stigma. Based on available data, it is estimated that in Canada, between 10% and 35% of first responders will develop PTSD.
Key takeaways from the roundtable can be divided into three broad areas that have informed our efforts to begin developing the coordinated national action plan.
The first take-away is a need for a unified grassroots approach to both defining and identifying PTSD. Public safety officers and the organizations in which they serve vary greatly across Canada in location, size, and culture. There was very clear consensus at the table that public safety officers need to have access to diagnosis, treatment, and care resources that take into account their unique experiences.
While the biological underpinnings of operational stress injuries may be similar to those in the Canadian Armed Forces, public safety officers operate in a different environment, often near the communities where they live. Public safety officers are repeatedly exposed to potentially traumatic events over the entirety of their careers and, unlike serving and retired military personnel, do not have a dedicated system to turn to that provides assessment, treatment, prevention, and support.
We also heard from the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs about the lack of consistency across Canada in recognizing PTSD as an occupational hazard to ensure treatment coverage and compensation.
Public safety officers face obstacles to accessing treatment, including long wait times and costs. This is particularly true for public safety officers in remote and first nations communities that can often lack robust services when compared to larger urban communities.
The second key theme was the importance of resilience, treatment, and reintegration into the workplace. As mentioned by the Paramedic Chiefs of Canada, there is no all-encompassing, off-the-shelf solution for prevention or mitigation of PTSD.
Resilience speaks to the need to build PTSD into the everyday dialogue of public safety organizations, ensuring that public safety officers and families have the tools to recognize early symptoms, are aware of coping mechanisms, and know when to seek professional support.
Participants also supported the development of innovative, flexible, and accessible evidence-based treatment options. This illustrates a need to reach public safety officers operating in remote locations or needing access to care at unusual hours. In addition, many participants expressed the importance of supporting reintegration into the workforce after seeking treatment.
Perhaps the biggest take-away was that evidence-based research was viewed by participants as key to ensuring a holistic approach to resilience, treatment, and reintegration. Participants stressed that public safety officers are not the only ones who suffer when a public safety officer is diagnosed with PTSD. Their support systems such as family, friends, and colleagues are also greatly impacted. Whether it's through education or awareness, guidance for this important network also needs to be considered.
This leads nicely to the third theme, the need for national coordinated research. Support was expressed for a dedicated institute to provide integrated cutting-edge research to public safety organizations across Canada. Many participants expressed the view that having a centralized area of expertise on PTSD research for public safety officers would better inform decision-making at all levels.
We heard from the chiefs of police that evidence-based research is needed to assist in developing policy to effectively deal with issues and to ensure that they are doing their best to assist their officers and civilian staff. This could be accomplished in many ways. For example, at the round table, the RCMP provided a debrief on its work to design and undertake a longitudinal study that would study new recruits in an effort to help identify underlying causes of PTSD and OSIs. This is valuable baseline research that can also be applied to the public safety community.
Ultimately, participants were strongly supportive of the government's commitment to develop a coordinated national action plan to address operational stress injuries, such as post-traumatic stress injuries.
The national round table was just a starting point. Since January, Public Safety Canada has continued to advance this work through strong partnerships with the health portfolio. In the coming months a second round table will be held to further advance our work. All these conversations will contribute to the framework of a coordinated national action plan.
Thank you, honourable members, for your time today.