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Peer support model takes flight in Canada

April 22, 2016 - An anonymous peer-support model for first responders in Canada is helping to end negative stigmas around mental-health issues.

Wings of Change Peer Support launched Feb. 1 and its users have since organized meetings in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta communities. The meetings are opportunities for first responders to discuss difficulties and solutions in safe, judgment-free environments among peers.

Ontario paramedic Natalie Harris built the Wings of Change model based on a peer-support group developed by retired staff sergeant Syd Gravel for members of the Ottawa Police Service.

"It's peers helping peers, and with that comes an acceptance and understanding, and it removes any kind of anxiety surrounding being assessed by a medical professional," Harris said. "However, we recommend very firmly that [professional help] takes place in conjunction with going to Wings of Change."

The meetings are intended to compliment therapies already available to first responders, Harris said. Volunteers who organize the meetings are not trained professionals, nor do they provide medical advice, rather they offer emotional support as colleagues who understand the pressures and difficulties of the job.

The model is designed for first responders but is adaptable for all professions in which occupational trauma occurs, including military, communications, and health care.

Harris, who experienced mental illness and received treatment, said she attended a similar support group as part of her rehabilitation and knows first-hand the impact it has on a person's recovery.

"Being in a room of people who experienced very similar things, similar emotions, similar family struggles, literally it was like looking in a mirror," she said. "I was able to see that I needed help . . . it was what saved my life."

Harris has received dozens of requests for the peer-support model, which she offers for free, from first responders in Canada, the United States and Britain.

For information on Wings of Change Peer Support, visit the Facebook page: Wings of Change – Peer Support.

April 22, 2016
By Maria Church