Jim Regimbal chaired the Yukon Employees’ Union’s recent Human Rights panel discussions of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. As Dawson City’s Fire Chief, President of the Association of Yukon Fire Chiefs, and Yukon’s Director on the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, he has advocated for improved services to first responders suffering from PTSI and has been instrumental in bringing the issue into focus in Yukon. He provided powerful empathy and insight earned from his many years on the job.
The first step is acknowledging and accepting that, whatever name it’s given, Post-Traumatic Stress Injury is real and that trauma significant enough to cause injury can’t easily be quantified. The science supports this, with mountains of evidence explaining the changes to brain structure caused by exposure to trauma. We can’t choose not to “believe in PTSI” any more than we can choose not to believe in climate change. The evidence is clear and the science is irrefutable.
PTSI can be the result of a sudden, dramatic incident but it is just as likely to develop invisibly over many years. Its onset can come without warning, sometimes after a seemingly benign event. Whitehorse Psychologist Nicole Bringsli used a water glass analogy; a glass can hold only so much liquid. All it takes is one too many ordinary, inconsequential drops of water and the glass spills over. We can witness and contain only so much pain and trauma before we reach our capacity to cope and, like the water glass, we risk spilling over.
What constitutes trauma? There’s no easy answer. Trauma that affects one individual very profoundly can sometimes be borne by another, or can be overcome with access to the right kind of support at the right time. Bringsli reminded us that each individual brings their own history and sensibilities to their work, and each person responds differently to similar circumstances.
What occupations or events are likely to lead to psychological injury? Combat veterans, first responders like firefighters, police officers, EMS providers, dispatchers and corrections officers witness things they can’t ever forget, scenes and calls that will affect them forever. A career of running into burning buildings, delivering terrible news or fighting to save lives takes an enormous toll on the heart and psyche. There are many lines of work that put people at risk, and it’s important to recognize the danger so we can provide appropriate resources to all those who need them.
Many caring professions are occupied predominantly by women, and many struggle silently with the emotional impacts of that difficult work. Though rarely labelled PTSI, the ongoing emotional trauma has the same impact on quality of life and mental health. It’s time to consider how broadly affected both men and women are by their work, and how many professions are high risk for psychological injury.
Social workers face heartbreaking situations in the line of duty. Removing children from dangerous homes, denying parental access and leaving vulnerable children in foster situations takes a terrible toll. Sheena Larose, a former Child Protective Services worker from Ontario recently wrote “Unless you are in the trenches, people don’t understand that child protection work can be among the most intensive, heart-wrenching and volatile work one could ever encounter.”
Social workers counsel child abuse victims and must bear witness for their frightened and confused young clients. When we talk about social workers’ emotional health, we often say they have “burned out”… we don’t consider PTSI as a likely outcome. Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue – whatever we call it, the results can be life altering and career limiting.
Front line workers in shelters for domestic violence victims face recurring trauma – imagine the daily challenge of maintaining a healthy outlook when you’re immersed in the pain of others. How hard must it be to turn a woman away when your facility has no space, knowing she and her children have no choice but to return to a dangerous home? These workers must also remain anonymous to protect the security of those they help, and so they often have no choice but to struggle in silence, without recognition or support.
Prevention is more valuable than cure; our panel members spoke again and again of the urgent need for effective critical incident de-briefing practices, currently almost non-existent in Yukon. They talked of the need for trained peer support, for non-judgemental listening and for access to counselling services. Other jurisdictions have comprehensive supports we haven’t even begun to consider here in the Territory.
When our panel was asked for a wish list to help combat Post-Traumatic Stress Injury, there was consensus on the need for critical incident debriefing, for pro-active discussion and peer support. More funding is needed to ensure local mental health service providers are resourced to provide care when it’s needed. Employers must prioritize worker safety and be as diligent in protecting the minds and spirit of their employees as they are about their physical well-being.
Jeannie Dendys, Yukon’s new Minister responsible for the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health & Safety Board offered her commitment to supporting PTSI prevention & treatment. YWCHSB Chair Kurt Dieckmann stressed the role of the employer and the value of prevention. It’s important to make sure protections are built into work environments likely to experience critical stress and trauma. Normalizing help-seeking behaviour will go far, he says, to de-stigmatizing PTSI and making work safer.
How we respond to our injured colleagues, neighbours and family members, is an indicator of how likely they are to heal. Forcing sufferers to convince us of their injury, prove its cause and defend their need for help adds insult to injury and creates barriers sometimes too great to overcome. During the recent Territorial election campaign, new Premier Sandy Silver promised to amend the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Act to include presumptive provisions for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD/PTSI) in first responders. That commitment was echoed by Minister Dendys at our event. At YEU we believe presumptive provisions must cover first responders, but that other high risk worker groups must also be included if the system is to protect those at greatest risk of harm.
Our community is compassionate; we are quick to help families in need. We support our sick, injured neighbours when there’s a fire, a death or catastrophic illness. That empathy must extend to the helpers, not just to the victims.
Ready, Willing and Able is a new national employment program aimed at increasing the labour force participation rate of people with disabilities. This federally-funded initiative has been launched in 20 communities across Canada and has seen some great successes; Whitehorse is no exception. The Yukon Association for Community Living is moving into our second year of working with the program.
YACL’s employment team is made up of a Labour Market Facilitator and several job coaches. Together we have worked to support more than 20 new employment opportunities for Yukoners experiencing various disabilities. As part of our role, we’ve engaged with dozens of employers to identify employment opportunities and we’ve provided on-the-job support to workers with disabilities and to their co-workers and supervisors. Support comes in the form of ongoing job coaching and other job-specific accommodations.
We hear so many success stories both nationally and locally as employers access a pool of hard working, long term and dedicated employees who love their jobs. These workers are gaining independence and building a social circle and meaningful ways to participate and actively contribute to their community. We start with the employer’s need and work to find the right match of skills and interest in an employment candidate. YACL is working to foster long lasting and successful working relationships between businesses and employees who are hard working, positive and capable additions to the workplace team.
The types of jobs found and supported through Ready, Willing and Able range from less than part-time to full-time, in small businesses to large, and across a variety of skill sets.
A key component of Ready, Willing and Able is helping businesses realize the value in hiring a person with a disability when the right match is made between job position and individual. In these cases, businesses across the country are seeing extremely low turnover rates, high levels of accuracy and dedication and an overall positive and motivating shift in workplace culture.
YACL has also initiated and coordinates an Odd Job Squad; a group of people who have interest and ability in labour and trades work, offering short term services to businesses and community members. They mobilize for odd jobs like small construction projects, snow shovelling, yard work, stacking wood and more. By supporting a good quality and dependable on-demand labour force we help workers gain skills and make connections, developing opportunities for longer-term future employment.
YACL has partnered with YuWIN and other disability organizations, developing new campaigns to further engage the business community and other potential employers. This includes web-based marketing but also provides opportunities to recognize success. We thank businesses that have been key players in inclusive hiring. We plan to develop training and education opportunities for businesses who may be interested in becoming involved but want to learn more.
If you’re interested in the Odd Job Squad or in becoming a supporter of our programs please contact Kathleen Hare at firstname.lastname@example.org or 667-4606.
Article submitted by Yukon Association for Community Living
During the YEU’s recent Human Rights Speaker Series, YEU was happy to welcome Yukon Trans* man Chase Blodgett to our hall to give a presentation. Invited by the PSAC’s very active Pride Committee, Chase walked us all through the complicated world he is navigating as he completes paperwork, plays hockey and plans the medical care his transition will require. A reporter from the Yukon News attended Chase’s YEU Human Rights Speaker Series talk, and wrote this great article. http://www.yukon-news.com/news/trans-man-pushes-for-human-rights-changes/
Chase has been a powerful advocate for the rights of transgendered people in the Yukon. Very recently the Whitehorse Women’s Hockey Association announced a ground breaking policy, allowing Chase to continue to play in the league while creating a safe space so that anyone who was born or identifies as a woman is welcome. While Chase is working through the issues surrounding his own journey, the groundwork will be laid for those who follow in his footsteps… or skate tracks. Read more here: http://www.whitehorsestar.com/Sports/women-s-league-oks-inclusive-transgender-policy
If you weren’t able to join us and want to watch the talk, please watch all three parts below or on the Yukon Employees’ Union’s YouTube channel
At YEU’s recent Triennial Convention, the delegation voted to ensure language and policy is adopted by our organization to create a truly inclusive union. The Public Service Alliance of Canada (of which YEU is a component) is a leader in equity advocacy and trans rights. YEU is proud to work with groups like the PSAC Pride Committee and outstanding individuals like Chase.