Comment: May 2016
By Laura King
I was skeptical, as is my nature. But having experienced a five-day train-the-trainer course and taught the eight-hour Road to Mental Readiness leadership program, my cynicism has dissipated.
I heard classmates during the train-the-trainer session discuss their hurdles, the guts required to admit that their brains were wracked by flashbacks or nightmares, the disappointment when they took time off work and no one called or emailed to check on them.
And though I’ve yet to witness the success of the mental-illness prevention program as it has only just rolled out here in Ontario, I have watched light bulbs go on as participants – chief officers from career and volunteer departments – grasp the concept of the mental-health continuum, and the Big Four steps to building resilience.
I took the train-the-trainer course for two reasons: to be better educated about mental health – and therefore better able to write about it and its effects on fire-services personnel – and because people tell me things; I’m trained to listen and observe, to get interview subjects to open up, to ask probing questions so I can write detailed stories. Problem was, I had no idea what to say to people who tell me they are living with mental illness.
I learned a new language – living with mental illness, positive self-talk. I learned that there are three kinds of stress: organizational; personal; and operational. I learned that stress comes and goes, and that cumulative stress from calls, work-life balance and other challenges leads to exhaustion, which leads to burnout, “which can be a significant but underappreciated problem with firefighters,” according to our R2MR trainer Sergio Falzi.
Perhaps the most surprising revelation was fact that there are no Canadian studies – yet – that point to higher levels of mental illness or PTSD among first responders than among the rest of the population; mind you, mental illness (not just PTSD, but anxiety, depression, substance abuse) affects one in five Canadians and, therefore, one in five responders, but organizations are now tracking responder suicides, media are reporting them, and we’re all hyper-aware.
I also learned that people get back to work sooner if they receive treatment early – so it’s important for managers to shield (help to prevent), sense (observe, ask questions) and support (provide resources to) their employees.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada is teaching R2MR to more than 250,000 emergency-services workers in the next 12 to 18 months. Those trainers will, in turn, teach their departments and others.
As Falzi explained, R2MR creators knew flood gates would open once police and fire personnel started to understand that mental illness is an injury that can be treated, managed and, in so many cases, healed.
“It’s not a flood gate,” Falzi said, “it’s a tsunami.”
Is your department ready?