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Constable Michelle Vincent says that 'there’s no way that a normal human being exposed to the traumatic incidents that we’re exposed to can go without that mental-health support.'

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

When Michelle Vincent received a call three years ago from a paramedic who had been on long-term disability and was contemplating suicide, she was at a loss.

As a York Regional police constable and member of the region’s critical incident stress management team who also holds a master’s degree in counselling psychology, she was suddenly struck by the lack of resources dedicated to first responders in crisis.

Const. Vincent began researching what other jurisdictions were doing. When she came across La Vigile, a non-profit treatment centre in Quebec that caters exclusively to first responders, she knew immediately that she wanted to bring the model to Ontario. Work is underway now to launch a facility called the Haven.

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“We are so desperate for resources. We could have 10 places that are like this and we’d still be overfilling the beds,” Const. Vincent said. “It’s such a huge need right now.”

The issue of first responders’ wellness has been in the spotlight recently in Ontario, after an unprecedented nine suicides by police officers in the province in 2018. But despite a growing recognition of the occupational stress injuries that first responders face – and an increasing inventory of public supports – a lingering stigma keeps many from seeking help.

Last month, an expert panel convened by the Ontario coroner’s office to look at the issue of police suicides called on Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones to establish an Ontario Police Members Mental Health Collaborative to “guide, monitor and report on an urgent and comprehensive plan of action in Ontario.”

In an early December e-mail statement, the solicitor-general’s press secretary said the government is “actively working with Ontario’s Chief Coroner on ways to support the mental health of our dedicated front-line staff and we continue to explore all options.” She would not say specifically whether a project like Const. Vincent’s might be part of their plan.

Since opening its doors in 2012, La Vigile has hosted 1,180 first responders in Quebec [including veterans and health-care professionals], who are dealing with a range of issues such as PTSD, addiction, anxiety and depression. In 2018, they hosted 153, and helped co-ordinate outpatient care across the province for another 455.

A 2017 study by mental-health experts across Canada, which was published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, found that first responders face a disproportionate risk of developing a mental-health disorder.

One of the main reasons these professionals need specialized services, La Vigile executive director Geneviève Arguin says, is that it remains “taboo” for first responders to ask for help.

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Ottawa psychiatrist Simon Hatcher agrees. Their jobs are so crucial to their identity, he says. They see themselves as the helpers – not the ones who need help. In the same vein, he says, there can be a reluctance to speak with “outsiders.”

“People often might not go to see a mental-health clinician, because they’ll say, ‘Oh, what do they know about my job? They don’t know what they’re talking about,’” Dr. Hatcher says.

Since June, Dr. Hatcher has been running an outpatient clinic specifically for Ottawa’s first responders. It’s a pilot project launched as part of a suicide prevention plan in a city that has seen multiple high-profile suicides by police officers in recent years.

Another benefit to a dedicated space for first responders, he says, is that they do not have to worry about running into people they’ve encountered through work.

Bruce Chapman, president of the Police Association of Ontario, said this is a particularly common concern for police.

“There may be people in there that police have dealt with,” Mr. Chapman said. “And now, all of a sudden, you have a first responder who’s not well, and trying to get help – but it may hinder everyone’s success by having them in the same program.”

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Though only in its nascent months, Dr. Hatcher said the response to the Ottawa clinic has been positive. He believes a project such as the Haven would be similarly beneficial – but stresses the need for adequate follow-up care, particularly for first responders coming from small or remote communities.

Mr. Chapman said he is “wholeheartedly” behind the Haven project.

“These are the [people] that protect our communities,” he says. “We have to make sure that they’re healthy and able to do the jobs.”

He argues that prevention saves organizations money in the long term.

“We find some of the discipline and the errors that our members make can be directly attributed to some mental-health issues that they’re struggling with from traumatic events that they’ve seen,” Mr. Chapman said. “That may lead to alcohol or other substance abuse, or other issues that would not have been there had it not been for the trauma that they witnessed. If we get them the help, we’re not going to have the other issues that are associated with it.”

Const. Vincent agrees: “There’s no way that a normal human being exposed to the traumatic incidents that we’re exposed to can go without that mental-health support.”

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Because their plan is to replicate the same model of La Vigile [whose team they are working with], Const. Vincent says they are just waiting on funding – and land.

“We’re ready to build … we just need the funding to be able to start off – because the plan is there,” Const. Vincent said. “We’re not reinventing the wheel here. We’re taking a model that exists currently and we’re bringing it over here.”

In addition to group and individual therapy, La Vigile also offers workshops in art or music. The Haven, Const. Vincent hopes, will also be able to provide equine and animal therapy.

They are looking for a location that is within a 45-minute drive of Pearson Airport, in order to be accessible to first responders travelling from rural and remote communities. Building costs, Const. Vincent estimates, will be roughly $4-million.

In Quebec, Ms. Arguin said the annual operational budget for La Vigile’s 15-bed facility [11 for men, four for women] is between $1.2-million and $1.3-million. She anticipates it would be higher in Ontario due to a higher cost of living.

Const. Vincent said the goal is to have 20 beds at the Haven, which she expects will yield cost between $2- and $2.5-million annually.

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In Quebec, the majority of the costs are covered through partnerships with police associations, who agree to donate a small portion from each officer’s paycheque in exchange for unlimited services. For others, the services are offered at much lower costs than traditional inpatient care.

Const. Vincent hopes to use a similar funding model in Ontario. She is also hoping to secure government funding.

Bill Rusk, the executive director of Badge of Life Canada, a non-profit organization that connects police officers with mental-health resources, said there is nothing like this on offer currently. He believes the need for first responder-specific care is urgent.

“It needs to happen sooner rather than later,” Mr. Rusk said. “Because we continue to lose members and the problem isn’t going away.”

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