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MPs want new centre to study first-responder stress and trauma

A Toronto Police officer guards a crime scene in Toronto's Kensington Market on July 1, 2016.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

MPs are calling for new research centre devoted to the mental health of first responders and other public safety officers grappling with the often disturbing toll of their jobs.

Estimates indicate that between 10 and 35 per cent of first responders — from paramedics to prison guards — will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, the House of Commons public safety committee says in a report tabled Tuesday.

"The effects of PTSD can be pervasive," the report says. "They not only affect the individual but can also have an impact on co-workers, families and friends."

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The committee urges setting up a Canadian Institute for Public Safety Officer Health Research that would collect data, devise a research strategy and generally recognize the particular challenges public safety officers face in their work.

The institute should be modelled on an existing one for military members and veterans, but operate separately, the MPs say.

They also recommend that the institute's research strategy include a comprehensive overview of the literature on use of medicinal marijuana to cope with stress injuries.

The committee also wants the new institute to work with Statistics Canada on a national mental health prevalence survey to gauge phenomena including repetitive trauma exposure.

In addition, the MPs suggest formation of an expert working group that would draft a national strategy on stress injuries including policies on prevention, screening, education, intervention and treatment.

"We need to take care of our public safety officers, because they take care of us," said Liberal MP and committee member Pam Damoff.

Much of the testimony was eye-opening and troubling, added NDP public safety Matthew Dube, but "there's a sense of hope as well."

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The office of Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale had no immediate comment on the report.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has directed Goodale to work with the provinces and territories and Health Minister Jane Philpott on a co-ordinated national plan on post-traumatic stress disorder among emergency personnel.

More than 50 people took part in a ministerial roundtable on the subject at the University of Regina in January.

During seven meetings, the public safety committee heard from first responders, government officials, medical experts and non-profit organizations.

Its report says that while most public safety officers are provincial employees of fire, paramedic or police services, there is still a need for federal leadership and partnerships among all levels of government.

Damoff said committee members "heard repeatedly" that groups want a one-stop place where they could learn best practices, rather than each start from scratch themselves.

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