Eliminating the stigma around mental health
First responders in the county take ‘Road to Mental Readiness’ training
|By Alex Coop - Staff Writer | May 4, 2017|
While battling a fire many years ago, the foundation beneath him cracked and Craig Worsfold began to fall. He was caught by his partner, and the two, who are now friends, occasionally joke about the moment to this day.
But Worsfold has seen first responders’ lives deteriorate after stressful situations on the job, and he emphasizes that one’s mental health can be impacted by stressors in their personal life as well.
And much like an ignored physical injury, mental scars can grow, and over time, result in serious mental health issues that are difficult to recover from.
“This program is about understanding that mental health and stress go hand in hand,” Worsfold said, pointing to the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s (MHCC) Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR) program.
“And it’s not always about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” he said.
Worsfold is one of 41 training officers in the province delivering the program to fire departments in the region.
He has 35 years of firefighting experience, the last four of which he’s spent as a volunteer firefighter in Algonquin Highlands. Worsfold has also worked as a full-time firefighter in the city of Hamilton.
He applied to be an R2MR trainer through the Ontario Firefighters Association last year, and has been teaching the program for six months to fire departments across the county and beyond.
By the numbers
Total First Responders trained in R2MR across Canada: 46,347
Total First Responders trained in R2MR across Ontario: 25,204
“We still very much live in a culture where people don’t acknowledge mental illness as an actual illness, just like a physical one,” he said. “That is no more evident than it is in emergency services.”
R2MR is largely based on a program first created by Canada’s Department of National Defense. It was then adopted by police departments in Calgary in 2013. Word of the program quickly spread, and fire departments and EMS across the country adopted the training and used it to form their own policies surrounding mental health. Ontario’s first responders were one of the first to do so, says Micheal Pietrus, director of Opening Minds, a group operating under the MHCC to reduce the stigma around mental illness.
“R2MR is very unique and adaptable,” Pietrus told The Highlander. “It wasn’t too long ago where you might have been told by your superiors to ‘suck it up.’ But now there is an understanding that not only are mental health illnesses real, but that you can get help for it.”
The program, which in firefighters’ cases, is delivered in two separate courses, a four-hour course for front line workers, the other an eight-hour program for captains and department heads, focuses heavily on a mental health continuum model.
It allows first responders to diagnose themselves by comparing their symptoms to the descriptions on the colour-coded chart. Green is normal, but the closer a worker gets to red, the more serious your symptoms are.
Symptoms under red include the inability to fall asleep, total isolation and excessive anxiety.
The program also instructs all EMS departments to ensure their support systems are streamlined and easily accessible by its staff.
PTSD, which involves exposure to trauma involving death or the threat of death, serious injury, or sexual violence, is often at the forefront of conversations surrounding mental health in EMS.
But it doesn’t take a traumatic call for a responder to deteriorate mentally, says Algonquin Highlands fire Chief Mike Cavanagh.
“You can’t quantify it that way,” he said. “You have to be aware of the cumulative effects of all the calls you’re responding to.”
While resources for mental health issues, like the 4 Counties Crisis Line and the Haliburton Health Services Mental Health department, were available prior to the R2MR training, Cavanagh says they are now heavily advertised and easier to navigate.
“There are resources available across the board, but what this plan does is bring it all together. We want to make sure our staff knows that it’s okay to ask for help.”
As of the end of April, the Ministry of Labour made it mandatory for all EMS departments to have a PTSD prevention plan in place.
Tim Waite, the deputy Chief of Quality Assurance and Education for the Haliburton County Paramedic Service, says PTSD is complicated.
“PTSD isn’t something that happens overnight,” he said. “Your childhood can play a factor, various experiences in life … a single call can also trigger something from the past.”
The Haliburton County Paramedic Service has also adopted the R2MR program and adjusted it to suit their needs.
Peter Leon, the OPP’s provincial media relations coordinator, says police are also training under the R2MR program.
More than 6,900 officers across Ontario are receiving the training and will be fully trained by the end of 2017.
“It’s continuous training … and it’s something that we will continue to build as an organization,” he said.
All four local fire departments, EMS and local OPP are doing the training.
ALEX COOP is a reporter for The Highlander.