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OPSEU/SEFPO leaders welcome another positive step for first responders’ mental health

Toronto — The leaders of OPSEU/SEFPO are pleased to see the Ford government has listened to the union and is addressing long-standing calls by front-line first responders for more mental health supports.

“This government has opened its eyes to the importance of our front-line heroes, and is taking important steps to protect them,” said OPSEU/SEFPO President Warren (Smokey) Thomas. “And as somebody who worked many years in mental health, I can tell you that mental health supports can be as important as a vest or a shield.”

On Feb. 1, the government announced it is setting up four new “mental health collaborative tables” to bring together frontline first responders and mental health experts and researchers in order to lower stigma, encourage healthier work-life balance, promote mental resiliency, and promote throughout the workforce the available supports, treatments, and recovery options.

The four tables will address particular first responders, including one each for those working in Corrections and Ambulance Services.

“This is a great example of a small investment that is sure to go a long way,” said OPSEU/SEFPO First Vice-President/Treasurer Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida. “As a Correctional Officer myself, I know that there are many, many first responders suffering in silence right now.

“But by setting up these tables and showing people that it’s OK to talk about mental health problems, we’re lowering the stigma and we’re increasing the support.”

The collaborative mental health tables were a key recommendation in a 2019 report from the Ontario Chief Coroner’s Expert Panel, which was convened after the deaths by suicide of nine first responders.

“First responders like those in Corrections face danger and trauma every time they put on their uniform, which is why mental illnesses like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder run so high in our fields,” said Chris Jackel, Chair of the OPSEU/SEFPO Corrections Division. “It’s good to see the government addressing this issue with things like the corrections peer support program, and these new mental health collaborative tables.

“The healthier first responders are, the healthier and safer all of our communities will be.”

OPSEU/SEFPO Ambulance Division Chair Jamie Ramage said he is also encouraged by the collaborative tables, so long as it’s not just management at the tables.

“Treating people with traumatic injuries is part of the job for front line first responders, but we should never be expected to carry the burden of that trauma alone,” said Ramage. “We’ve always said we need more supports, and I’m heartened to see that the government is responding.”

Ramage believes a fifth table should be added for first response dispatchers, or that they should at least be invited to take part in the existing tables.

“Dispatchers and communications officers may be physically removed from traumatic situations, but they’re still very much exposed to them emotionally through their communications and interactions with callers,” said Ramage. “They deserve as much support as other first responders.”

For more information: Warren (Smokey) Thomas, 613-329-1931