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Raising awareness of life after retirement crucial for first responders’ mental health: advocate

Trauma from the job gets filed away in a mental filing cabinet and can surface after retirement.

“Once you retire, you’re out on your own, and there’s nothing.”

Ernie Mothus, a retired paramedic and mental health advocate, was fighting to prepare paramedics for retirement even before stepping down from the frontlines himself.

Many paramedics experience a decline in their mental health upon retirement, often brought on by a lack of planning, loss of their identity as a first responder and buried trauma from years of responding to “bad calls.”

“We (were) finding that too many people were getting to retirement and haven’t looked at anything,” he said.

Mothus first learned about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and its effects when he started helping his union, the Ambulance Paramedics & Emergency Dispatchers of BC (APBC), with submitting PTSD claims to WorkSafeBC. He personally experienced PTSD early on in his career in the 1980s, but, at that time, it was still a relatively unknown condition.

“And at that time, with (WorkSafeBC), the criteria was so narrow you might as well have said that the criteria or regulation was to prevent mental health claims, because it certainly didn’t open the door for any successful claims that I dealt with,” he said.

As time went on, Mothus noticed an increase in awareness and more pressure to change how mental health for first responders should be approached, but it was going to take time.

“So, as we got closer to retirement, this is something that I felt was needed for retirees,” he said.

“We’re fighting very diligently and fighting hard for (union) members, active members, but there was no fighting going on for retirees. And I understand that fight. I mean, we can’t even get proper coverage for active members.”

When Mothus started getting calls from retired members seeking advice for their declining mental health, he realized there was a pressing need to paint a picture of life after retirement and warn members of the potential challenges to their mental health.

And Mothus was not alone. Earlier this year, preparing for retirement was one of the key topics discussed at the BC First Responders Mental Health Conference, held in Richmond.

“So much of our time and attention around retirement planning is spent on the financial planning, and not planning out what our… goals and our passions and our purpose is going to be,” said Trudi Rondou, conference spokesperson.

“It’s not a vacation, it’s a new period of your life, and you can’t really treat it as a vacation. You need to have some meaning and purpose,” she added.

First responders often feel connected to their occupation, which shapes their sense of identity, Rondou explained.

“A loss of purpose is prominent amongst first responders, particularly upon retirement, because a large majority of first responders identify strongly with the work they do,” said Rondou.

As such, planning how they fit into the world post-retirement is crucial for their mental health.

Retired first responders are prone to declines in mental health

Apart from the loss of purpose, one of the biggest reasons why retired paramedics experience mental health “crashes” is unresolved trauma due to lack of time and support, said Mothus.

Debriefs at the end of each call, or “bumper talks,” as Mothus calls them, are helpful for paramedics, especially after “a real bad call.” These calls might include suicides, drug poisonings, child deaths like SIDS, serious and fatal car crashes, serious burns, shootings and stabbings and industrial accidents.

“So, in that discussion, you can bring your fears and concerns and stuff out. But you’re also hearing from others that may be more senior, and you (can exhale),” he said.

However, the increase in call volumes over the years has led to such talks being put on the back burner.

During Mothus’ last decade working as a paramedic, call volumes were climbing so fast, there wasn’t time to debrief with a bumper talk.

“You didn’t have time, because as soon as you put your car back together again, your kit back together again, dispatch is paging you and hollering on the hotline, ‘We’ve got six calls stacked up, we need you to get out.’”

The Richmond News previously reported that paramedics in B.C. responded to record high call volumes in 2021, and the situation has only gotten more dire due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the toxic drug crisis. Last year, paramedics responded to an average of one overdose or drug poisoning per day in Richmond.

BC Emergency Health Services currently has a total of 55 paramedics in Richmond at two stations, in addition to eight in the YVR bike squad. (This compares to about 200 fire fighters in Richmond, located at seven fire halls.)

Paramedics do not have municipal boundaries and are deployed in a way to make the most of available resources, therefore, they can be called to respond to other surrounding municipalities as well.

“(Calls) just stacked up so there’s no time for any of that (debriefing),” said Mothus, adding that if something bothered paramedics, they wouldn’t have time to think about it because they were already moving on to the next call.

“So, what do you do? Well, you throw it in a file, go to the file cabinet, put it in a bottom cabinet, slam the door shut and maybe (you’ll) get back to it later,” he said.

And once they retire, paramedics may struggle to process their trauma without being able to speak with those who understand.

“Now, all of a sudden, you’re at home 24/7. You might go golfing, you might go fishing, or whatever. But you have time to slow down and start thinking of things, and that’s good,” he said. “But what starts creeping out of that file cabinet? And (you’ve) got no way to go over it with people.”

While retirees may be able to speak to family and friends about their experiences, their loved ones may struggle to understand their perspective and can get traumatized as well.

“I started when I was 21 years old, I retired when I was 57. I spent more hours with my (ambulance) partner (of 28 years) than I did with anyone in my family,” said Mothus.

“I see these guys on shift for those four days, off and on, all through the day. And then comes retirement. You hear the door close behind you as you leave the station.”

Lack of support from WorkSafeBC and employers

Although Mothus was able to make some progress in finding ways to help retired paramedics by working with APBC, the momentum was shattered when the COVID-19 pandemic happened.

“COVID-19 hit and everything goes poof,” he said.

At the moment, retired paramedics have access to a small amount of money through their pensions to cover medical costs including for their mental health. However, Mothus said the meager amount isn’t enough to get substantial help from experts.

Outside of institutional support, the BC First Responders Mental Health Committee has since developed resources that include retirement guides, webinars and videos from retired first responders discussing their experiences.

Warren Leeder, mental health and wellness coordinator at the APBC, told the News that the union has “made great headway” in terms of filing mental health claims for members despite there being “a heavy burden” on WorkSafeBC at the moment.

Retired paramedics may still be eligible for filing claims with WorkSafeBC, as long as they do so within two years of the event or if they have a “very good argument” to explain the longer timeframe, Leeder explained.

However, there is still a long way to go in terms of supporting the mental health of retired first responders.

For example, WorkSafeBC’s claim model for physical injuries, which requires identifying a single triggering incident, may not necessarily be appropriate for mental health claims.

For years, counsellors and psychologists have been saying that’s not how it works with mental health injuries or PTSD.

“It can be cumulative over the years, and then there’s a single event that might trigger it,” said Mothus.

“That’s common knowledge for years now, so (WorkSafeBC) has to lighten up and accept that as well.”

Mothus also thinks unions and employers can do more to advocate for retired first responders.

“These people have given their careers to look after the community and now we (don’t) look after them?... It’s just not right.”