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Fire engulfs a seniors residence in L'Isle-Verte, Que., early January 23, 2014. It is widely known that first-responders, such as firefighters, are at elevated risk of mental injury.Francois Drouin/The Canadian Press

Researchers are preparing to measure the scope among Canadian public safety workers of post-traumatic stress disorder and other occupational stress injuries that destroy lives and prompt suicides.

The pan-Canadian study is being led by the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research, a new organization being developed at the University of Regina, and will support efforts to address a public-health problem that has only recently been recognized by governments.

"We will commence the data collection in September so we can provide better information for everybody," said Nick Carleton, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Regina who is leading the study. "And that better information," he said, "can hopefully lead to more evidence-based actions to support the mental health of all our public safety personnel."

The federal Liberal government has said it will work with the provinces and territories to develop a national action plan on PTSD among public safety officers.

While there has been significant attention drawn to the many Canadian military personnel who returned from Afghanistan suffering from PTSD, and to the large number of those who killed themselves after taking part in that war, there has been less focus on the traumas suffered by those who do the risky and anxiety-filled jobs in this country.

It is widely known that the police officers who view bodies mangled in car crashes, the firefighters who rush into burning buildings, the paramedics who treat catastrophic injuries, and the corrections officers who work on tense and unpredictable prison ranges run elevated risks of mental injury. But there is not much hard evidence to indicate the depth of the problem.

The new study will look at PTSD rates in those occupations, as well as among border guards, Canadian Security Intelligence Service officers and emergency dispatchers.

The Tema Conter Memorial Trust, which provides support to public safety and military personnel dealing with occupational stress injuries, counts 30 first responders – police, fire, ambulance and prison workers – who have taken their own lives so far this year. The trust cannot say for sure that all of the suicides were related to occupational stress. But it also acknowledges that some suicides of first responders are not included in its count and the actual toll is much higher.

Lori MacDonald, an assistant deputy minister in the Department of Public Safety, told a House of Commons committee in May that there has been a lack of data collection, and that getting numbers of first responders with PTSD is difficult because of the stigma associated with the disorder. "People know it's personal, private information and they don't want it known," she said.

Even so, she said, her department has done surveys that found 7 per cent of police officers suffer from PTSD and an astounding 36 per cent of male corrections officers also identify as being affected by the disorder.

Those officers – some of whom say they have had difficulty getting approved for workers' compensation when they can no longer do their jobs because of illness – spend their professional lives in an environment where violence can break out at any time.

Howard Sapers, Canada's Correctional Investigator, said he frequently speaks with staff at penitentiaries who must respond to suicides, or attempted suicides, and then immediately deal with the other inmates on the range. In addition, he said, federal prisons now house the largest psychiatric population in the country.

"Training and capacity within those institutions has not kept pace with that growth of that very challenging population," he said. "I think we need to provide better health support and intervention capacity to sentenced offenders in the institutions, but we also have to provide better mental-health support to the men and women who work in those institutions."