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Half of B.C. first responders who file mental-health claims don’t receive the help they’ve requested
May 25, 2016
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Lorimer Shenher was a Vancouver cop for 24 years before finally leaving the force with a PTSD diagnosis. He warns many B.C. first responders aren't receiving the help with mental health that they need, in part because of a difficult claims process at WorkSafeBC.
Lorimer Shenher was a Vancouver cop for 24 years before finally leaving the force with a PTSD diagnosis. He warns many B.C. first responders aren’t receiving the help with mental health that they need, in part because of a difficult claims process at WorkSafeBC.

Lorimer Shenher estimates that less than five percent of B.C. first responders who need help with mental health ever ask for it. That’s only a guess, he said in a telephone interview. But it’s an educated one.

Shenher was an officer with the Vancouver Police Department for 24 years, before leaving the force with a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2013. He’s also the author of That Lonely Section of Hell, a book about the investigation of women missing from the Downtown Eastside and the prosecution of serial killer Robert Pickton. The book recounts Shenher’s lead role in that investigation, and the debilitating toll it took on his mental health.

In a telephone interview, he discussed the challenges that B.C.’s first responders—firefighters, police officers, and paramedics—can encounter on their way to getting help with conditions such as PTSD.

 Shenher argued that because relatively few first responders who ask for help, WorkSafeBC should make it as easy as possible for them to receive it.

“I think there are much higher percentages of people in those professions that need help that aren’t asking for it,” he said. “When they do finally acknowledge to themselves that they are struggling, it takes a huge amount of courage and faith to put a claim into WorkSafe.”

Yet roughly half of B.C. first responders who do file a mental-health claim with WorkSafeBC do not receive the assistance they are looking for.

According to WorkSafeBC data first reported on by the Tyee and updated for the Straight, for the period July 2012 to December 2015, only 51 percent of 277 B.C. first responders who filed a mental-health claim saw their case approved. (These statistics exclude the RCMP and Transit Police.)

In a telephone interview, Jennifer Leyen, director of special care services for WorkSafeBC, emphasized those numbers do not mean 49 percent of claims were rejected.

She supplied a statistical breakdown showing that of 136 first responders’ mental-health claims not approved, 15 percent were stamped “no adjudication required”, which means that paperwork was only filed for “informational purposes” and did not include a claim for health-care costs or lost wages. Another 32 percent of disallowed claims were suspended, meaning the applicant dropped out of the claims process before a resolution was reached.

Leyen also emphasized that the acceptance rate for mental-health claims filed by first responders was significantly higher than that of all mental-health claims. That number was just 26 percent.

“We accept a significantly higher percentage of first-responder claims than we do any other employer group,” Leyen said. “It is double.”

But she conceded WorkSafeBC accepts a smaller percentage of mental-health claims than it does of the claims it receives as a whole (the bulk of which involve physical injuries). According to Leyen, the acceptance rate for all WorkSafeBC claims hovers around 91 or 92 percent.

“Because the mental-health legislation is very specific about what gets accepted under this part of our legislation, there is much more adjudication required,” she explained. “And we do have a higher disallow rate.”

Leyen noted that changes enacted in July 2012 broadened the scope of mental-health claims deemed eligible for WorkSafeBC compensation. Whereas the rules once said an individual had to be on the scene of a traumatic event—a car accident, for example—now they also cover mental-health challenges that can result from what WorkSafeBC calls “work-place stressors”.

Shenher benefited directly from that legislative change. His claim was initially rejected on the grounds he had not spent time on the farm where Pickton took his victims. It was only accepted by WorkSafeBC when it was reviewed again under the revised legislation.

“I understand how difficult it is to get your head around how PTSD manifests itself,” he said. “It is really weird, the things you can do, the things that you can’t do, the things that trigger you, and the things that are okay. It’s different for everybody.”

At the same time, Shenher questioned whether there’s a need for an arduous review process of mental-health claims. He suggested there’s already such a degree of stigma around mental health, especially in the tradition-bound environment of a police department, that only people with a very pressing need for help ask for it.

Shane Simpson, NDP MLA for Vancouver-Hastings, worked with first responders to draft a private member’s bill that would see WorkSafeBC handle first responders’ mental-health claims with a “presumptive” approach.

“For somebody who was diagnosed with that [PTSD] who is a first responder, the claim would be accepted immediately, without any further processes, unless there was a glaring reason to review it,” Simpson explained in a telephone interview.

He said he introduced that bill last March, but, without government support, he doesn’t expect it to go anywhere.

Simpson maintains that a presumptive approach to mental-health claims is important because a mental-health challenge is very different from a physical injury. He said a condition like PTSD can make the WorksafeBC claims process seem especially daunting, hence the organization’s high percentage of suspended mental-health claims.

“One of the challenges with PTSD is, it’s an area where, because of people’s health condition, they get frustrated,” he said. “And numbers of them don’t follow through to the end of that [WorkSafeBC] process, because of their level of depression.”

The Tyee’s May 20 article presents the stories of several first responders who struggled with long and difficult processes of filing mental-health claims with WorkSafeBC. Shenher recalled how hard the process was for him before his claim was finally accepted in 2012.

“And when you get denied—” Shenher paused. “It’s devastating.”

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This article was originally published at Straight.com on May 25, 2016.

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