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Paramedics face suicidal thoughts more frequently than other emergency responders, study finds

When researchers used police-officer behaviours as a baseline, paramedics were shown to be more than two or three times as likely to think about or plan suicides.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Paramedics, emergency dispatchers and jail guards in Canada deal with suicidal thoughts far more frequently than police and firefighters do, according to a new study.

These findings, which suggest that all of these public-safety professionals are above national averages in terms of suicidal behaviours, are based on a self-reported sampling of more than 5,000 professionals. The results are surprising some seasoned researchers who've spent years mapping out mental-health disorders in this realm. "The differences between the groups, I think, were unexpected," said Nicholas Carleton, who led a team of academics in the study published this month in Canadian Psychology, an academic journal. "We've got clear evidence we need to be attending to all our public-safety personnel."

Speaking as the scientific director of the University of Regina's Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment, he pointed out that many first responders are exposed to a daily tempo of high-stress situations. That can often include hearing from, or attending to, desperate and dying people they may be powerless to save.

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But not all professions appear to be affected equally by such interactions. For example, when researchers used police-officer behaviours as a baseline, paramedics were shown to be more than two or three times as likely to think about or plan suicides. And emergency-call dispatchers and correctional officers were not far behind paramedics in terms of their own gravitation towards self-harm.

Internalizing the grim nature of such work has long been known to take a toll within a broad array of public-safety professions. But researchers are only now beginning to understand just how much, given a growing awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder and related ailments which, in extreme cases, can lead to suicide.

The new study attempts to quantify how suicidal behaviours may affect some 250,000 professionals in the country. Data was drawn from a Web-based survey conducted between late 2016 and early 2017. More than 5,000 first responders and correctional officers answered questions about their own experiences.

Over all, about 10 per cent of respondents admitted to suicidal ideation – seriously thinking about killing themselves – in the past year. Four per cent admitted to actually planning suicide, while less than one-half of 1 per cent admitted to actually having attempted suicide.

When these same suicidal behaviours were considered over a lifetime, the overall rates rose to 28 per cent for ideation, 13 per cent for planning and 4.6 per cent for attempts.

But the study suggests stark differences exist among these professions. For example, while replies from police and firefighters weighted these averages down, the responses from other professions had the opposite effect. "[P]revalence of lifetime, self-reported suicide attempts among correction workers (8.1 per cent), paramedics (9.8 per cent), and call-centre operators/dispatchers (8.6 per cent) appear higher than previous estimates," the new study says.

The report was welcomed by observers struggling to draw attention to the levels of stress that workers in these areas face.

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"Many paramedics feel that they are not viewed in the same light as police officers or firefighters. Unfortunately, many people still see paramedics as 'ambulance drivers,'" said Vince Savoia, a former paramedic. Mr. Savoia now runs a charity known as the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, which posts its own statistics suggesting that suicides among paramedics or correctional officers rival those among police in Canada.

The RCMP announced in December that it would spend $9-million on a long-term study by the University of Regina at mental-health disorders within its ranks. At the time, senior officers estimated that about 40 Mounties have killed themselves over the past decade.

The new study finds that male Mounties may be 50 per cent more likely to contemplate suicide than their male peers in other police forces.

"Until last decade or so, we haven't focused a tremendous amount of our attention and resources on our public-safety personnel and their mental health," Dr. Carleton says. More work needs to be done across the board, he added. "We've got more data on police and firefighters than we do on corrections, paramedics and dispatch."

Upon taking office in 2015, the federal Liberal government vowed to create a "co-ordinated national action plan" for PTSD among first responders. A spokesman for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the ministry is consulting with stakeholders as it works toward fulfilling that promise.

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