Letter to Minister Goodale: Social Workers and PTSD

September 5, 2018

The Honourable Ralph Goodale
Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6


Dear Minister Goodale,    


On behalf of the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW), I am writing to again stress the importance of the inclusion of social workers in future research and initiatives around the topic of first responders/public safety officers and the incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We had previously written on this topic in fall 2017, and now have new data to share from our recent major research project on social workers and child welfare in Canada: Social Work and Child Welfare: Canadian Survey and Interviews with Child Welfare Experts .

CASW was very pleased to note that your mandate included the creation of a national strategy for PTSD, and with the recent results of national study, Mental Disorder Symptoms among Public Safety Personnel in Canada, confirming the negative impact on Canadian first responders, your government’s leadership is now required to define the scope of future research and legislation.  

To this end, CASW is concerned about the lack of stable definition of the categories of Public Safety Officer and Emergency Responder. Indeed, Mental Disorder Symptoms among Public Safety Personnel in Canada defines public safety personnel (PSP) as “include[ing], but … not limited to, correctional workers (security and nonsecurity roles), dispatchers, firefighters, paramedics, and police officers.” There is clearly an understanding that this title can include many types of roles and occupations. Defining the scope of these titles is paramount in ensuring that all Canadians at risk will be protected from the onerous process of proving that their condition is the result of trauma encountered at work.

To provide some context about our profession, social workers are routinely exposed to potentially traumatic events through their work in the areas of mental health, child welfare and protection, hospitals and other community settings. Additionally the demand is growing for social workers’ skills during police emergency response due to the frequency of mental health related calls.

In fact, social workers are often the first to respond and investigate situations of extreme physical, sexual and psychological abuse. In these circumstances social workers frequently are called upon to complete emergency investigations, often without the accompaniment of law enforcement. As a consequence, social workers often witness the most heinous acts humans impose on themselves and each other; often experiencing both chronic and acute trauma due to constantly processing the trauma of others.

To be more specific, our new research project, which was published in late August 2018, paints a bleak picture of child welfare systems in each province and territory. The research took two main forms: a nation-wide, bilingual survey completed by more than 3200 social workers, as well as interviews with child-welfare leaders and experts from different jurisdictions.

Some of the most salient statistics revealed include that 44% of social workers in child protection roles have experienced threats or violence on the job, and 45% of social workers who left the field did so due to vicarious trauma and/or overwhelming stress. In some provinces with presumptive workplace legislation, social workers are able to have PTSD diagnosed and treated without being further traumatized by having their condition not acknowledged as PTSD and OSI.

These results clearly point to the need for the inclusion of social workers in child welfare roles in legislation to support and address PTSD and OSI. CASW makes two concrete recommendations in this regard:

  1. More research at the national level to better understand a larger scope of occupations affected by ‘operational stress injuries’ (OSI), which includes PTSD, to better protect all Canadians. CASW calls for more research specifically on the additional areas of social work practice that are at risk of OSI, to either incorporate these in the current proposed national strategy or to investigate the inclusion of a category of certain health and social occupations.
  2. The creation of a framework that will improve the ability to track PTSD and all OSI is necessary to establish guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and management, and create education materials to be used by public health providers.

Again, on behalf of the CASW federation, we look forward to supporting your office in the development of a national strategy for PTSD and OSI that includes the profession of social work.


Jan Christianson-Wood, MSW, RSW

President, CASW