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Why a Kamloops organization wants to address first responders' mental health

August 03, 2018 - 6:00 PM

KAMLOOPS - First responders are people trained to tackle all kinds of emergency situations, but what happens when they're the ones who need help?

Whether they are nurses, paramedics, firefighters, correctional officers, or police, one thing they all have in common is their susceptibility to certain mental health disorders, because they are the first people to respond to the scene of various emergencies. 

Some calls are worse than others, and sometimes a certain image, sound or even smell can stick with these workers and affect their mental health seriously and long-term. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Labour announced changes to the Workers Compensation Act which would make access for compensation for first responders with mental trauma much easier across the province.

The changes include adding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental disorders to the list of conditions that are recognized as being associated with specific jobs. The mental conditions would be presumed to have been caused by the nature of the work rather than having workers prove the trauma they experienced was related to their work, something that many mental health advocates have called controversial in the past.

Locally, one way the Happyness Center in Kamloops is trying to address mental health concerns in regards to first responders is by hosting a 12-week program specifically designed for individuals in these careers. Along with United Way and Volunteer Kamloops,  practitioners from the Happyness Center have partnered together to pilot the city's first mental health program for first responders.

It's called Restoring Responder Resilience, and it's specifically designed to help first responders who may be feeling stressed or struggling with their mental health. The program takes on a holistic approach to show individuals in these fields how to take care of their mental health, says Jo Berry with the Happyness Center.

"It's going to incorporate everything from counselling, coaching, running programs, walking, yoga meditation and mindfulness," Berry says. "It's a very unique program for first responders."

Berry, who also has a background as a social worker says it was important for the practitioners at the Happyness Center to reach out to first responders in the community because of the important role they play in the community.

"I think their whole role is to be strong, to look after others and (they) do not necessarily discuss their own needs as far as help," she says. "Because they are in such a helping role, it can be a lot more difficult for the helper to ask for help, and I know that first hand because I've been a social worker for years."

Kamloops Fire Rescue Chief Mike Adams says there's been an improvement when it comes to addressing mental health concerns among emergency service workers.

"We are becoming more aware. There's more awareness being brought forward in regards to PTSD not just for first responders but for people in the military as well," he says. "We've introduced some peer training for staff, debriefing of incidents of concern, we want to make sure that help is there."

Adams says in his lengthy career as a firefighter, discussing mental health among first responders wasn't always a priority.

"Staff now, are much more open to speaking to their peers about their challenges as first responders," he says. "That wasn't always the case."

Adams says there are calls he's responded to personally in his career that have changed him as an individual. It's not something he would discuss publicly, but it's something that's stuck with him in his career.

"We are not the same individuals when we leave this job," he says. "We all have a bit of baggage from this... we still have a long way to go."

Adams says next year the fire service will be rolling out a new program with the Canadian Mental Health Association called Resilient Minds. The program will allow firefighters to receive the help and support they need and ensuring it's accessible.

For the program being put forward by The Happyness Center in the fall, it will be led by Sri Madhuji, a former monk from India.

"His vision is to heal people from the inside out and to have (them) find their own resources," Berry says.

The program is the first of its kind, says Berry. Not only is it free but it is open to all different types of first responders. The program will begin Thursday, Sept. 13 and run until Nov. 29, she hopes in the future they will be able to host it again.

"(First responders) save our lives, so to continue this program would be our ultimate goal," Berry says.

To learn more or register for the program contact Jo Berry at joberry@telus.net.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Karen Edwards or call (250) 819-3723 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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