As a town, Burns Lake is small, but the experiences that local first responders must face are very big and very challenging.
The First Responders Cafe (FRC) group in Burns Lake aims to give more mental health support for first responders like police officers, firefighters, and paramedics, said Ron Blinn, a mental health counsellor and the FGC founder and project coordinator.
But the type of support Blinn wants to provide means a lot more than just listening to peoples’ experiences. He is very clear that action should be taken over the suicide rate among first responders.
“We’re hoping we could reduce the number of suicides in the province, particularly in the northern communities. We lost a fireman in Fraser Lake last year to suicide and one last month in Williams Lake,” he said.
“I worked in mental health for 28 years and I worked with the police in Prince George in the 1980s. I also lost two of my best friends to suicide. So I thought I could do something. I moved here just after the mill exploded. I retired here but I’m still volunteering.”
After Blinn started the FGC almost two years ago it has grown to a core of five to seven members who meet regularly to provide peer support. The Burns Lake group also includes members from Houston, Telkwa and Granisle. They might watch a video clip of a speaker discussing mental health and share ideas, or go hunting and fishing together.
Potential new members first meet with Blinn one-on-one to see if they like the idea of the FGC before attending the meetings.
“The point is to provide the support that is lacking for these people. If we have to go see a psychologist we have to go to Prince George or Vancouver, but then it takes the first responder outside of the community,” said Blinn, who added that first responders can’t always depend on peer support in their workplaces.
“You get a fireman, paramedic or cop who goes to their supervisor with mental health concerns, their colleagues won’t want to back them up. There’s still that stigma. You take a paramedic with post traumatic stress disorder to a hospital, the hospital itself becomes a trigger. So there has to be somewhere for these people to go for support. They don’t want to go their supervisor because they’re afraid of being written up and losing their [police] badges. We have more police on permanent disability than we have veterans.”
Since it formed, FGC has received about $20,000 in funding – half from the Northern Interior Rural Division of doctors and half from the Ministry of Health – which it hopes to use to set up more support groups in northern British Columbia.
“We put in a proposal for $70,000 to hire a part-time project coordinator to go around to the communities and keep this going. But they only gave $10,000. MLAs have referred us to WorkSafeBC for more funding and training” Blinn said.
Earlier this month the FGC received $1,340 from the Bulkley Valley Credit Union.
If the FGC can access more funding Blinn hopes he can respond to requests to form new groups in other communities such as Mackenzie, McBride and Valemount.
“In Saskatchewan there are peer support groups in every community. Every year the number of suicides increases and we’re up 22 suicides this year in B.C, and that includes correctional facilities personnel, police, paramedics and firemen. They put $70 million into B.C to help with the opioid crisis but not enough for the people who have to deal with that.”
For more information on the First Responders Cafe visit its Facebook page or call Ron Blinn at 250-251-1653.