By Laura King
Feb. 16, 2016, Toronto – We passed. All 21 of us in last week's Road to Mental Readiness course in Mississauga stood – or rather circulated, standing still is bad – and taught entire modules of the eight-hour R2MR leadership program on Friday, after four days of intense learning.
We were critiqued (constructively, of course), sized up, roundly encouraged, and graded (on fives pages worth of criteria!) by the masters who had led us all week.
And now that we all know the massive R2MR manual inside out, we're ready to take the show on the road, so to speak.
Piece of cake? Not quite. It's easy to stand – rather, circulate – in front of peers and talk about what you know, firefighting techniques or, in my case, social media or coverage of the Elliot Lake mall collapse; not so much an overwhelming volume of mostly new and, often, sensitive information.
Last Monday I couldn't spell amygdala, let alone identify the almond-shaped fear receptors in the brain connected with the fight, flight or freeze response.
I couldn't have told you that fire-service leaders should shield, sense and support their crews, that we should all use the Big 4 – goal setting, visualization, self-talk and tactical breathing (which was employed a fair bit in advance of Friday's presentations), or that there's a mental-health continuum to identify when to help colleagues.
I knew about PTSD but not PTSS – post traumatic stress syndrome.
I didn't realize that most mental illness among first responders is anxiety, depression or substance abuse and that cumulative stress at home and at work is the worst.
I learned about stigma and moral stressors and keeping our rain buckets empty so they don't overflow when things get rough. (How's the water level in your rain bucket?)
We laughed – a lot (mostly at trainer and retired cop Sergio Falzi's myriad anecdotes). We listened more. Those who felt comfortable told their own stories of treatment, time off work, challenges getting back on the trucks.
We learned that the earlier people living with mental illness get help, the sooner they come back to the halls. And, we were told, for so many people, work is everything – who they are, how they identify, what keeps them going.
We discussed the 24-hour shift; maybe seeing colleagues just seven times a month isn't ideal after all?
We memorized steps in the ad hoc incident review – acknowledge, inform and respond, or AIR – which a particularly perceptive member of our group (who happens to write a blog) likened to the first line of defence to bring some firefighting terminology to the program.
We were told from the outset that R2MR is evidence based – that it has been evaluated by more than 100,000 users, and it works.
R2MR is a tool to help fire departments build awareness and resilience; there are others. Find a program that works for your department and your people – and use it.
The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs announced a partnership with the Mental Health Commission of Canada on July 30 to roll out R2MR, and started training two weeks ago – a pretty remarkable timeline for anything in fire let alone a mental-health training program.
I heard from Sergio-the-retired-cop on Sunday, asking me to include a word of thanks to the OAFC for bringing him and R2MR to Ontario firefighters – he even admitted to enjoying the (seemingly never ending!) cop-firefighter banter, despite being outnumbered 21 to one.
As Sergio reminded me in the email – our brains do not differentiate between physical and mental pain, and neither should we. Not bad for a copper, eh.
Let's get the show on the road.