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Feb. 10, 2016, Mississauga, Ont. – We've learned a lot about anxiety in two days of Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR) training (read my first blog), mostly because we're all experiencing it given the magnitude of material to absorb before we are tested later this week.

And by tested, I mean a written quiz Thursday, then a 25-minute presentation – with a partner – on Friday, on one of the 11 modules of the massive R2MR training manual.

So, as we've been taught to do to manage stress, I'm setting a goal, visualizing, self-talking (which is pretty much constant anyway) and using tactical breathing to get through to Friday at noon. (There, I've just answered one test question!)

OK, I'm exaggerating a bit; the course material is being taught brilliantly (buttering up the instructors?) and rather humorously, by trainers from the Mental Health Commission of Canada, in digestible bits, and we started practice teaching yesterday so that by Friday we'll all be comfortable with our units.

Still, some in the course are better in front of a room than others – fire chiefs, deputies, captains and firefighters here from Whitchurch-Stouffville, North Bay, Burlington, Mississauga, Paisley, Orillia and a handful of other municipalities, for example, are better than, say, editors of fire magazines.

We've learned a ton about stress this week – organizational stress, personal stress, operational stress (test question 2?). Two things have stuck in my mind: that stress comes and goes – I expect to experience it any minute on the drive to Mississauga on Hwy 403 but once I reach the Garry W. Morden Centre, it will have dissipated; and that cumulative stress from calls, work-life balance and stuff (or that other s word) leads to exhaustion, which leads to burnout, "which can be a significant but underappreciated problem with firefighters."

Perhaps the most surprising revelation so far is the 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 of them.

Here's what else we've learned: 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. (Another test question – you see where I'm going with this?)

How can they do so? By using the ad-hoc incident review, or AIR, to acknowledge, inform and respond to firefighters who may need help.

OK, I'm feeling better now that I wrote all that without looking at the 500-plus page manual or my notes, so I'm off to Mississauga to no-doubt embarrass myself several more times in front of my (wonderfully supportive, articulate and confident) group before I master the material.

Stress, of course, is relative. Today, I may sweat through my socks but no one gets hurt, no property is damaged or lost, and everyone goes home.

February 10, 2016
By Laura King


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Editor Laura King is feeling a bit stressed over Road-to-Mental-Readiness testing later this week

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