Published on February 24th, 2017 | from CAMH

Who Responds to First Responders?

By Dr. Lisa Couperthwaite, Psychologist, Work, Stress and Health/Psychological Trauma Program

As a clinical psychologist, I appreciate the dedicated work of our first responders – the paramedics, firefighters, police officers, military members, emergency dispatchers, nurses, correctional officers, and others working in professions focused on keeping those in our community healthy and safe. For these people, work can mean regular close encounters with danger, chaos, and unfixable human suffering. These experiences can, at times, negatively impact mental health, sometimes leading to psychological disorders, relationship difficulties and/or substance issues.

There is a high potential cost to caring, but also potential for personal fulfillment and growth.

Broadly speaking, psychologists working in various settings are available to provide support to first responders, military members and their families in a number of ways. At the CAMH Work, Stress and Health Program, psychologists work on a multidisciplinary team with psychiatrists, occupational therapists, social workers, pharmacists, physicians, and other wonderful support and administrative staff to address the specific mental healthcare needs of these unique clients. It is a privilege to work with first responders to ensure they are healthy, happy and well.

Psychologists at our clinic play an active role in maintaining and facilitating the health and wellness of our first responders in many different ways:

  • Drawing on expertise in occupational stress injuries and other mental health issues, as well as familiarity with the culture and nature of the work, we provide comprehensive clinical services. This includes PTSD screening assessments, comprehensive psycho-diagnostic assessment for a range of occupational stress injuries and other mental health issues, evidence-based treatment and return to work rehabilitation services.
  • We provide education and training on various topics related to wellness.
  • We provide consultation services to municipalities and first responder organizations to identify gaps and recommend solutions for mental health programming and assisting in the formulation of PTSD prevention plans.
  • We are involved in collaborations focused on changing systems for prevention, such the Canadian Safety Association’s development of a National Paramedic Psychological Health and Safety Standard.
  • We are developing research partnerships to examine the effectiveness of a wellness checks program for Peer Support Teams and other frontline emergency responders to bolster coping skills, job performance and wellness.
  • We can provide training and oversight to peer support teams.
  • Psychologists also provide individualized support following critical incidents.

Suicide and First Responders

Something we all need to be very concerned about is the alarming suicide rate among first responders, which is higher than the number of first responders killed in the line of duty. According to statistics maintained by the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, Canada lost 48 first responders and 15 military members to suicide in 2016 alone.

As I write this, we have lost four Canadian first responders and four members of our military in 2017. The loss of lives of our first responders and military members to suicide is an immense tragedy. These were people who cared so much for life that they dedicated themselves to helping and protecting others, but they were in so much emotional pain that they chose to end their own lives.

As mental health professionals, it is important to work in collaboration with organizations such the Tema Conter Memorial Trust and others, municipalities and emergency services across Canada, to put an end to this crisis. We must work together to find solutions for the epidemic of suicide among our first responders and military. We must end the silencing of the old “suck it up” attitude, engage in efforts to prevent and minimize occupational injury, and continue to research, educate, and provide support. We must continue to advocate for funding and timely access to specialized, evidence-based mental health treatment to help alleviate the high price of untreated mental health injury that many experience in serving our communities and our country.

First responders support our communities. They require a community of support in return. In addition to psychologists, this community of support also includes other formal supports, such as direct supervisors, Peer Support Teams, Chaplains, Occupational Health Nurses, Occupational Therapists, Human Resources Specialists, Medical Doctors, Psychiatrists, and others, in addition to the very important and valuable informal support of colleagues, family and friends.

As a society, we all benefit when every one of our first responders, military members and their families experience the support they need to maintain their wellness as they give of themselves to help each one of us. We must continue to work to improve the lives of the heroes that help us. We must continue efforts to eliminate the stigma of acknowledging that the individuals who devote their lives to helping others need our support too. Our first responders are always there for us. Let’s make sure we are there for them.

February is Psychology Month in Canada. CAMH would like to celebrate the amazing work of all of our psychologists, who make life-saving contributions to the lives of the clients they serve.


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3 Responses to Who Responds to First Responders?

  1. Gladys Carroll says:

    This is an excellent article!! I appreciate what these “first responders” here and overseas to make my life as blessed as it is. I view the people that work at CAMH as one of the heros in our society. I know how much they are on call and are emotionally impacted by their wonderful, caring work.

    Thank you!!!

    • Dr. Lisa Couperthwaite says:

      Gladys, I am humbled by your kind words. Our work at CAMH is very rewarding. It is truly an honour to work with our clients, who I consider some of the most courageous people I know for the work they invest in the process of recovery, through collaboration and teamwork with clinicians such as myself. Thank you again for your kindness. -Dr. Lisa Couperthwaite, Psychologist, CAMH Work, Stress & Health Program

  2. Dr. Couperthwaite,

    I am a paramedic who proudly gave 25 years of my life as a paramedic to my community and would return to my ambulance, if not for my PTSD. I lost my home, lived in my car, sat at the table for meals with the same homeless people who were once my patients. I respected them then as I do now. There are a large number of first responders living on the street, so many know nothing of this. My group that I founded and I have been called “the voice for all first responders in BC”, the Province with the highest rate of suicides among our first responders. As of today, we have lost 2 fire fighters and 3 paramedics to suicide. I am contacted by the powers to be in the Police and Fire departments and generally the family, friends or partners of the paramedics in BC. I then report the numbers to Vince Savoia of Tema. I am fighting for the Presumptive Clause that Alberta started and in the last 18 months, Ontario, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and now the Yukon and P.E.I are beginning their discussions. I am also proud to have addressed this issue with Todd Dougherty MP, and federal Bill C211 is creating support and movement. BC, still refuses to assist us with a Presumptive Clause and the Municipality level, hundreds if not thousand of emails have been sent to our Minister of Labour and Premier. They all want their first responders to get the IMMEDIATE and APPROPRIATE treatment and benefits when they attach a psychologist report to their WorkSafe Claim for a Mental Health Injury. Statistically, they deny 95% of first responders claims and it often takes 2-8 years, numerous psychiatric evaluations, causing further trauma, putting us through further financial debt and increasing life stressors. Generally, it is after all of those years and they receive yet another denial, I am contacted that we lost another brave soul. I would very much like to ask you a few questions, if you are available. In the meantime here is my website for our lobby group, we are they to educate and break the stigma and a private site where the first responders get support.
    I applaud your work and thank you for your kind words and appreciation for who we are and what we do

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