The duties we’re called to perform require our responders to step in front of traumatic scenes. Despite our resolve, these experiences can put down roots in our crew. Planting proactive resources for managing behavioural health and reacting compassionately to people with occupational stress injuries will embolden our fire service to help make things better.
Our firefighters are suffering. Though we sound the alarm and rally our community with the urgency required to help, the problem persists. When our firefighters respond at high frequency to situations that can embed traumatic memories, an opportunity also exists for growth. Programmes like Can Praxis enable firefighters to fortify themselves and recover from occupational stress injuries.
According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, 44.5% of 5,813 Canadian first responders interviewed for a study on self-reported diagnostics had a positive screen for at least one mental illness. In a meta-analysis of programme outcomes from The Working Mind for First Responders, an online peer support course offered by the agency toward improving internal support systems in Canadian firehouses, the reported link between the high-stress atmosphere of the responders’ job and behavioural health outcomes is clear. The document reviews literature to suggest that first responders are prone to worse mental health outcomes due to the nature of their experiences on the job.1
Hardly a shocking revelation
There’s a reason we’re captivated by the sturdy trees of a lush forest. Their strength to withstand the winter despite the frigid cold reminds us that we too can stand against the tests of our environment. The longevity of their life, towering into the canopy illustrates the durability required to thrive. They provide shelter and respite, all the while taking on the bitter elements without so much as a whisper of complaint.
To mature as the mighty pines, we must stage correctly as a seedling. Addressing concerns for behavioural health in the fire service begins with establishing proactive strategies to bring about more resiliency in our firefighters at the beginning of their careers. Expanding baseline emotional flexibility creates more space on the back end, hopefully limiting the need to engage members in formal rehabilitation programming. Resiliency is the root of wellness programming.
Emotional elasticity is a skill that can be developed with constant attention to proven techniques and a watchful eye. Especially in the Covid era, where classrooms have been converted to shared screens in a Zoom call, courses like The Working Mind exist to empower firefighters to learn about developing personal resilience. Further, courses taken in the comfort of your home office can introduce concepts for helping your crew progress their understanding of behavioural health as well.
We have long-held advantages for the firefighter that employs them in regulating the mind. Hard exercise, therapy, a well-maintained diet and a solid sleep routine are paramount for keeping a clear path in front of you. These can’t be purchased through a subscription fee. In the same way our tactical training is defaulted to the discipline we promised we would hold, the heat from our job is shaded by your investment in the time-honoured tools of wellbeing.
People who have suffered an occupational stress injury are often subjected to discrimination, prejudice and ignorance and are significantly stigmatized.2 The first step to eliminating the unfair treatment of our brothers and sisters who are rightfully vocal about their struggle is speaking about mental health openly.
After bumping into Can Praxis on Instagram organically, a short phone call offered a deeper look at a programme designed from the very start to cultivate better behavioural health for first responders. Steve Critchley and the helpful volunteers with Can Praxis provide no-cost equine assisted therapy to veterans and first responders in Alberta, Canada. He has a clear and forward approach to discussing behavioural health as it relates to first responders. Steve started Can Praxis in 2013 after a colourful career with the Canadian Armed Forces. He punctuated an introduction to the organization with a distinct vision for how programming should be delivered.
‘Good information equals good decisions’
Steve explained how an occupational stress injury can derail a first responder’s life. Where Can Praxis leverages the theoretical understanding of anxiety, depression and our responses to trauma is in the programme’s volunteers. The classroom facilitators on staff with Can Praxis are first responders and psychologists. Social workers and child psychologists are available to work with families that have children as well.
That’s where Can Praxis is fundamentally different from other therapeutic programmes. The programme is designed to include the entire family. For no cost, the organization will provide travel, lodging and therapy to a first responder diagnosed with an occupational stress injury and their family. In three phases, the programme offers the structure needed to help rebuild. With specific focus on the affected responder, then the spouse, the programme finishes up with a combined retreat into the mountains on horseback as a team.
Terri, a 20-year firefighter with a career department in Ontario, Canada, had found herself challenged to find a way through a Post-Traumatic Stress Response after her department’s peer support group fell short. In a short interview about her time so far with Can Praxis, Terri shared the guilt and paralyzing fear that had hooked into her personal life – a carryover from her harrowing experiences in the field. Wading through the offerings from the equine-assisted therapy programme, Terri notes that the programme has helped immensely with specific elements of her mental-health journey, communicating with her husband and validating her personal experiences.
Terri expressed with certainty that the programme has helped. The horse-focused exercises with her husband worked on ‘pressure and release’ techniques with real-world results. The immediate benefit of relearning these skills with a horse as companion was best described by Terri at the end of a short interview.
‘Horses pick up on your body language. If you make a mistake, it’s about accepting what is happening and moving forward.’
As winter crosses into spring, the seeds we’ve sown need to be hardened off if they’re to thrive in the real outdoors. From the safety of our windowsill, we take these baby plants outside for short stints in the sun. In the garden, as in the work-life cycle of the modern first responder, we must proactively assume a defensive posture and work in advance to build healthy coping mechanisms for the challenges we will surely face. In response to occupational stress, programmes like Can Praxis can help nurse the injured back toward being able to flourish, despite the wind and rain.
For more information, go to https://canpraxis.com/
1. Andrew Szeto, PhD1, Keith S. Dobson, PhD1, and Stephanie Knaak2. The Road to Mental Readiness for First Responders: A Meta-Analysis of Program Outcomes. 2019. 2-5.
2. Royle L, Keenan P, Farrell D. Issues of stigma for first responders accessing support for post traumatic stress. Int J Emerg Ment Health. 2009 Spring;11(2):79-85. PMID: 19927494.