They are suffering silently, by the thousands. Emergency workers – police officers, paramedics, firefighters, hospital personnel – are afflicted by post-traumatic stress disorder at levels we typically associate with an epidemic.
A recent report in Montreal's La Presse newspaper provided a glimpse into the problem. It found that roughly 1,500 active duty members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are receiving some form of disability benefit for treatment of the condition, as are another 2,500 or so retired members.
According to federal government documents obtained by La Presse, PTSD cases involving the Mounties have tripled since 2008.
It seems likely the explosion in RCMP cases has to do with PTSD becoming a more common diagnosis – especially as the taboos associated with admitting to mental illness fade away. The same grim uptick in reporting is unfolding in ambulance services, trauma units, police stations and firehouses across Canada. That's good – it's essential that people feel more comfortable coming forward.
But the health consequences of PTSD can be calamitous – suicide rates are high – and the resources to deal with the problem are not keeping up with the surging demand. As it stands, the federal and provincial health systems are not equipped to get first responders the help they urgently need.
As federal employees, Mounties can turn to the overburdened Veterans Affairs ministry, which is plagued by delays and inefficiency. Their local and provincial counterparts aren't even that lucky. They face a patchwork of support programs that vary widely according to region.
Some provinces include PTSD in their workplace injury compensation plans; others don't. In some places, certain classes of workers, such as nurses, aren't covered.
Last month, the federal military ombudsman, Gary Walbourne, called for the creation of a national "concierge service" – a one-stop shop for the Department of National Defence's PTSD sufferers.
It's a good idea that should spawn imitators across Canada. Emergency workers perform dangerous, harrowing work on society's behalf, and they are hurting because of it. Governments at all levels have the urgent duty to help them recover.