British Columbia’s paramedics sought mental-health support in April at almost twice the rate of the previous year, a spike in calls for help that reflects the heightened stress of a job that has required emergency responders to assume their patients have COVID-19.
Data from BC Emergency Health Services, an agency that manages paramedic operations, said it had tracked an 80-per-cent increase in calls from paramedics, dispatchers and other staff to its critical-incident stress program, from 130 calls last April to 235 calls in the same month this year. The organization said much of this increase was the result of outreach, and most cases are linked to the pandemic.
The agency said 142 calls have come in May, which is more consistent with a monthly average of about 135.
B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said in a statement that B.C. Emergency Health Services is monitoring the increase in the use of the critical incident stress program closely.
“We will work to ensure all paramedics have access to the support they need and encourage paramedics and all members of our province’s health care team to use these services at their disposal and reach out for help when they need it,” he said.
The Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., the union for the province’s 4,500 to 5,000 paramedics, released data that confirm the increase in requests for counselling.
Vancouver-region paramedic Dave Deines, who is also the president of the Paramedic Association of Canada, says paramedics and their dispatchers, in B.C. and elsewhere, face increased stress, with no end in sight.
He said paramedics have to wear personal protective gear – which is hot and impedes normal breathing – for most of a shift.
"In addition, it dramatically reduces the ability to communicate with a patient,” he says. Only some of the gear can be removed and put back on.
“But the reality in Vancouver is the call volume is so high that, on busy days, you literally put it on at the beginning of the shift and it stays on for the majority of the shift unless you need something to drink or something like that.”
The critical-incident stress program, launched in 2015, consists of co-ordinators and 130 paramedics and dispatchers who volunteer to support members who need help, and can refer members to a trauma counselor or psychologist.
Lindsay Kellosalmi, mental-health and wellness co-ordinator for the ambulance paramedics organization, said the sharp increase in need is unusual.
She said paramedics have unprecedented challenges, including concerns about bringing the virus home, and adapting to new treatments for patients, such as airway procedures.
Dispatchers may not be on the scene of incidents, but she said they experience stress from an increasing number of calls from members of the public who fear they have been exposed to the virus.
“They also have the stress of sending their [paramedic] colleagues into some unknown situations,” she said.
She said the long-term impact is unclear.
Mr. Deines said he has no cross-Canada data, noting that counselling is measured differently in different places, but the West Coast situation is consistent with what he has heard anecdotally.
Mr. Deines said the pandemic has been unprecedented in his 25-year career as a paramedic.
Nationally, for paramedics, Mr. Deines said the priority now is getting through the pandemic. However, he said he is interested in legislation that would facilitate workers’ compensation benefits by assuming that any injury during a paramedic’s work in the pandemic, whether it is physical or mental, is COVID-19-related and the worker should be eligible for enhanced mental-health and wellness treatment and access to benefits.
As for the future, he said he expects a consistent suspicion of influenza-like illnesses.
"In terms of COVID specifically, nobody knows what’s really going to happen,” he said.
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