We need to develop mental health plans now to support front-line health workers

This column is an opinion by Scott Maxwell, the executive director of Wounded Warriors Canada. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

As the country continues to scramble to acquire vital personal protective equipment for our front-line health care workers and “flatten the curve” to prevent them from being overwhelmed, lessons from our past should serve to inform us that we must also begin to think and plan now for what’s likely to come.

The persistent reality of working without adequate protective equipment, short staffing, long hours, fear of contracting the virus and of thereby harming others (including your own family), and the mounting numbers of ill and dying Canadians, is the daily reality for our front-line health workers. Life and death battles are unfolding in front of their eyes, both at work and through a 24/7 news cycle that carries its own weight.

There can be no denying the psychological impact the pandemic will have on workers who are in the thick of the battle against COVID-19, and on their family members. Operational stress injuries, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), were taking their toll on Canadians long before this crisis, so we know the potential effects of stressful work environments.

Consider that in January, the Canadian Armed Forces reported that 175 CAF members have died by suicide since 2010 — including 20 members last year alone. This surpasses the 158 who were killed in action during our 13 years in Afghanistan.

Likewise, the prevalence of operational stress injuries among our first responders — police, fire, paramedics, correctional officers – was already recognized as a public safety issue nationally before the pandemic. The report of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security stated that, based on available data, between 10 and 35 per cent of first responders were expected to develop PTSD.

The National’s Adrienne Arsenault gets rare access inside a Toronto hospital during the global COVID-19 pandemic to see first-hand what staff are up against. Some of what our team saw and captured on camera may be difficult to watch. 9:56

These stark and often tragic realities have now captured the attention of all levels of government. The CAF, veterans and first-responder leadership have never been more attuned to stress injuries.

But while much progress has been made in recent years to enhance psychological support services, speed up access to care, reduce stigma and bring about organizational change, there is no question this has largely been a reactionary effort.


If you’re thinking about suicide or are concerned about someone, there are people you can talk to:

  • In an emergency situation, dial 911
  • Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566, text 45645, chat at crisisservicescanada.ca
  • In French, Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)
  • Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868, chat at kidshelpphone.ca

While it is normal for people to experience difficulties processing traumatic events, for some the symptoms will persist. It is why, at this critical juncture, leaders of Canada’s front-line professions need to create, or build upon, comprehensive mental health plans to help mitigate the long-term effects of the COVID-19 crisis.

This should include, but not be limited to:

  • Timely access to specialized trauma therapy, with no cap on the number of sessions per member.
  • Resources for affected family members.
  • Navigational support to help those in need access proper care.

Long-existing staffing issues also need to be addressed, so people no longer feel that they’re letting their team or partners down when they take the requisite steps to access mental health care.

As the Ontario Provincial Police Independent Review Panel highlighted in its final report released in December, for example, the evidence indicates that operational staffing shortages correlate directly to the wellness of OPP members.

Staff from Markham Stouffville Hospital outside Toronto offer a glimpse inside the ICU as a warning about the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic. 6:28

Through our work at Wounded Warriors Canada, time and again we have heard of stories where first responders felt shame in taking a knee to look after themselves. These unacceptable realities highlight workplace culture and resource issues that need to be fused with any comprehensive mental health plan – for any organization.

The good news is that there have been improvements across the country in recent years as a result of leadership embracing mental health and deploying resources to improve the overall workplace experience.

And while our organization is witness to the short, medium, and long-term impacts of trauma exposure, we also see the transformational outcomes of early intervention. Not unlike physical health, early intervention for mental health issues has been crucial in the effort to help Canadian Armed Forces members, first responders and their families process traumatic experiences and get started on a path to healing and recovery.

Let’s ensure we learn from the lessons of the past and prepare for what is likely to come when the headlines about COVID-19 wane.

That is when we will need the same national commitment to be #InThisTogether, so that the people who have bravely served on the front lines during the pandemic receive the mental health care and support they so rightly deserve.


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