Ontario will get a new mental health center for first responders

A few weeks ago, dangerous thoughts raced through Kevin Doherty’s mind. The district chief with the Toronto Fire was off after a hip replacement and the pain reverberated through his body.

He stared at two hydromorphone pills, weighing how he could use the opioids.

“Maybe I’ll squash them and snort them,” he thought, his addictive mind in tip-top shape.

But the 57-year-old was stopped, called 911 and went to the hospital, where he learned he had a blood clot.

“They were just thoughts,” he said of the temporary experience. “But often what happens is that people act on these ideas.”

A decade ago, before rehab and treatment, he used to act on those ideas, especially when his job costs became so great. He wished there was a place for first responders to go when their minds turned on them.

“I call it the lost decade,” he said. “We need a safe place for first responders to recover and get treatment. Maybe if we had one, those years would have gone back, maybe not.”

Soon, such a spot will be built.

With funding from provincial and federal governments, a healthcare facility in Toronto is set to build and operate a rehabilitation center dedicated to treating first responders and medical personnel for post-traumatic stress injuries.

Runnymede Healthcare Center is set to provide details of its plans on Thursday afternoon, along with Premier Doug Ford.

For Doherty, this center would have helped him deal earlier with the horrors he saw while working.

There was a time in 1992 when he fought a wildfire where a fire captain got lost inside a building and died. “I put it on the shelf and it was never dealt with,” he said.

In 2008, he made his first appearance in a flower shop where the florist was found hanging in the bathroom with her head covered with duct tape. Two men killed her in a robbery. Doherty had to cut it.

I’ve put that on the shelf, too.

He said of his mental state at the time: “I don’t get along well with it, there are no resources around, and there is no one to really turn to.”

So I turned to beer. Then cocaine. Then crack cocaine.

By 2012, he was out of work, with a long-term disability, with a PTSD claim with the county Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

He had a side business renovating homes but lost it and had to move in with his parents. He was arrested for possession of cocaine and obstructed driving, and was ordered by a court to attend rehab or risk imprisonment.

He chose rehab in January 2014. He has remained vigil ever since, talks to a therapist regularly and is now a strong mental health advocate.

Statistics show that there are many first responders struggling with their mental health. Police officers, firefighters and paramedics account for 38 percent of all work-related psychological stress injury claims in Ontario, according to WSIB data from 2016 to last year.

Claims have risen steadily, the council said, from 541 among first responders in 2016 to 1,149 claims in 2021.

Connie Dejak, CEO of Runnimede Healthcare, which will manage the new rehabilitation facility, said there is a clear need for help specific to first responders.

The idea for the center was born when her husband, a veteran firefighter of 33 years, had a serious accident while working.

“He really changed us and he really changed us,” she said. “What I’m beginning to understand is that there is a specific need to develop and plan services and programs that treat first responders not as patients, but more as partners.”

She said there are two such centers in the United States, but none in Canada.

After asking the county to help support first responders, Dejak said she received a call from the prime minister in October 2020 saying he was on board.

Ford said Thursday that it is important for the government to support first responders, whose jobs often involve “large personal sacrifices.”

“In our times of major crisis, our first responders always answer the call,” he said in a written statement. “These brave women and men stand with us when we need them most, and this government will support their support as well.”

Dejak said the federal and provincial governments will provide $1 million for the center’s capital planning phase.

There will be an outpatient and assessment center in Toronto, which will be known as Station 3434, and a 40-bed inpatient facility located on a large property in Caledon, Ontario, that was donated by the Peel District.

Dejak said families can stay at the Caledon property when they visit and pets can come for as long.

“Our whole goal is to make sure this is something that a first responder doesn’t have to go through alone,” she said.

Dejak said that construction work on both properties is set to begin this spring with a view to completion in late 2024.

Matthew Page, chief of the Toronto Fire Department, said the center would go a long way toward supporting members’ mental health, noting that the pandemic has been difficult for firefighters.

As of Monday, 107 firefighters had post-traumatic stress injuries, up from 82 in mid-December.

“This will literally save lives,” he said.

For Doherty, the center also represents another effort to de-stigma around treating mental health issues among first responders, who often think they are too difficult to treat.

“It’ll help you pick up a 500-pound phone, go on your ride and start getting some help,” he said.

This report was first published by The Canadian Press on March 3, 2022.

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