Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Death of Winnipeg Firefighter Spurs Call For Better Access to Mental Health Care

Preston Heinbigner, who worked as a firefighter, died by suicide earlier this month. In the wake of his death, his friends and colleagues are calling for better access to mental health support for paramedics and first responders.

Former firefighter Josh Klassen, who teaches a mental health course, said that while help is available, it’s not the easiest to access.

According to Heinbigner’s close friends and colleagues, he had been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder related to the job. He ultimately ended his life on April 9. He was 40. He is survived by his wife, and two-year-old son. His wife is also pregnant with their second child.

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Heinbigner with his wife and two-year-old son

He started his firefighting career in 2007 and quickly became a loved member of the firefighting family. Ken Garon, who had worked alongside Heinbigner, said he was ‘highly intelligent and charismatic’ and always ‘took the time for everyone’.

Heinbigner’s long-time friend of 20 years, Dalain Gagne, who is also a veteran firefighter, has created a goFundMe page to help his wife and children move through their lives following his death.

Prior to ending his career as a firefighter, Klassen, who was on the job for 17 years, was also diagnosed with PTSD, which he received treatment for. He hadn’t realized he wasn’t well until he told his psychologist about a suicide call he responded to earlier.

Klassen emphasized it isn’t the fires that take a toll, but the repetition and nature of helping those in a crisis.

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Klassen (right) and his father both worked for the Winnipeg Fire Department

According to the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, the number of claims regarding mental health issues made to the Workers Compensation Board has gone up significantly in recent years for both fire paramedics and paramedics, in addition to calls for service.

In 2021, 236 claims were made, which was nearly double that of 2020, which saw 132 claims. The number did, however, fall slightly in 2022 and 2023.

The City’s Manager of Corporate Communications David Driedger said several factors drive these claims including ‘exposure to burnout, violence, and other critical incidents’ that occur in the workplace.

He noted that ‘cumulative stress’ is also a factor for many individuals.

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Heinbigner’s colleagues spoke out about their friend’s death on radio

Clinical psychology professor Nick Carleton, who teaches at the University of Regina, agrees. He said there is a noticeable increase in the challenges that first responders must face, in addition to the fact that they are exposed to thousands of traumatic events over the years.

The Winnipeg Workers Compensation Board said those who are diagnosed with work-related mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder may qualify for benefits such as counseling services, lost wages, and other costs.

However, the process takes time as they must investigate each claim individually, to see whether or not it fits the criteria of their policies.

From 2021 to 2022, the number of sick days increased from 686 to nearly 900. While the numbers for 2023 have not yet been released, experts expect an upward trend.

Brooke Carter
Brooke Carter
Freelance writer who loves dogs and anything related to Japanese culture.
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