Protecting the protectors: Safeguarding the mental health of first responders
First responders form a unique and resilient work force. Safeguarding their mental health is integral to protecting and promoting the safety of our communities.
First responders are often called upon to operate in high stress situations and may be routinely exposed to trauma. In contrast, they must also contend with the daily grind of long hours, shift work, boredom and the anxiety of waiting for the next call.
Training, focus and keeping perspective all help to shore up mental wellness and reduce the risk of mental injury. Beyond post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), operational stress injuries can include everything from depression to substance misuse.
A recent online survey found that public safety personnel are up to four times more likely than the general population to have a mental health problem. This study provided the first national snapshot of the mental health of first responders in Canada. The picture is far from homogenous, with differences emerging depending on diagnosis, sex, age, geographical location, and profession – with paramedics at highest risk.
While the majority of first responders are coping well, more can be done to help them recover from operational stress injuries and boost their resiliency to help protect their psychological wellness in the face of job stress.
When it comes to the mental health of first-responders, there are many innovative possibilities on the horizon. These tailor-made solutions are changing a long-established culture of stoicism into one of collegial support.
Bill C-211, a recently passed law, recognizes the potentially harmful psychological effects of working in high stress occupations – including those employed as first responders. Under this bill, federal, provincial and territorial governments are called upon to convene with key stakeholders and develop a federal framework to provide timely diagnosis and treatment for PTSD. This is a good first step towards recognizing the special considerations that should be extended to those whose workplaces can present unique hazards to their psychological safety.
All workplaces can benefit from implementing the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. A new standard for paramedics, Psychological health and safety in the paramedic service organization, was released last April and is also a valuable resource for all first responder organizations. Commissioned by the Paramedic Association of Canada and developed by the CSA Group with funding from Ontario’s Occupational Health, Safety and Prevention Innovation Program, this standard offers sector-specific guidance for developing and maintaining a psychologically healthy and safe workplace.
Specifically, it helps paramedic workers and their employees:
· Raise awareness of associated stigma, self-stigma and harassment;
· Systematically identify sources of stress and psychological hazards; and
· Examine changes and control measures that can be implemented to address those hazards.
Contrary to popular belief, many organizations are already doing important work to promote and protect the mental health and wellness of their workers. Take the York Region Paramedic Services, which has established an innovative and pro-active peer support team. A first responder trained in psychological first aid is sent out on every shift to check on his or her colleagues. The 20-member peer-support team hears about concerns ranging from trauma at work to problems at home, to addictions and financial worries. York Regional Paramedic Chief Norm Barette says the program is filling a “silent void.”
Slowly but surely, concerted efforts to fill this void will help to build an internal resiliency. This could include training like the Road to Mental Readiness a program originally developed by the Department of National Defense and adapted by the MHCC for first responders, which teaches coping skills to manage mental health problems based on the mental health continuum model.