Study seeks to fireproof workers against PTSD

Derek Berg//Special to Western NewsPhysical Therapy professor Joy MacDermid is exploring the effectiveness of a mental-health and resiliency program called Resilient Minds on the well-being of firefighters in both Vancouver and Prince Edward Island. The study is supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

As the mental and physical demands on first responders become clearer, the efforts of one Western researcher might just be a life-saver for those so often celebrated for saving the lives of others.

Physical Therapy professor Joy MacDermid is exploring the effectiveness of a mental-health and resiliency program called Resilient Minds on the well-being of firefighters in both Vancouver and Prince Edward Island. The study is supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

And the work could not come soon enough.

In 2016, the Journal of Community Safety and Well-Being estimated 70,000 Canadian firefighters, police officers and paramedics have suffered from mental-health issues and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Inspired by those findings, the Canadian Mental Health Association and Vancouver Fire Department developed Resilient Minds to equip the first responders with the tools necessary to combat these stresses. Firefighters in PEI more recently began using the program; now several hundred people on both coasts have trained on it.

The 12-hour program is designed to help emergency personnel understand the causes and impact of psychological trauma, learn how to recognize it early, respond appropriately to peers in crisis and develop coping strategies to safeguard themselves against PTSD.

“Resiliency training is meant to prepare you, but it can’t completely protect you from these traumatic incidents. It’s like a healthy diet – it can help protect you from becoming ill, but it can’t 100 per cent prevent it,” said MacDermid, the James Roth Research Chair in Musculoskeletal Health, who has worked with firefighters for more than a decade. Her work is part of a national program called Firefighter Injury Reduction Enterprise: Wellness Enabled Life & Livelihood (FIREWELL).

MacDermid will use her one-year grant to answer key questions about what works, what doesn’t and what needs further study with the Resilient Minds program. She will conduct interviews and develop a database that can help find patterns, like:

  • Do those who have taken the program feel better than those who haven’t?
  • How do their symptoms compare now with pre-training or pre-crisis?
  • What kinds of critical events might trigger issues?
  • Do firefighters’ age, length-of-service or gender make a difference in their resilience?
  • What common threads run through their mental-health successes or stumbles?

MacDermid will also compare the effectiveness of Resilient Minds in the two diverse regional settings, among two groups of firefighters with different experiences and training.

“If we want to scale this up to different locations, then we need to know what the challenges would be,” she explained.

The research is part of a national action plan on post-traumatic stress injuries among emergency personnel, announced recently by Ralph Goodale, Federal Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada. That plan includes $10 million for an Internet-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy pilot project to provide greater access to care and treatment for public safety personnel, especially in rural and remote areas, and $10 million for a long-term study of mental health among new Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) recruits.

Central to the action plan is the new, $20-million National Research Consortium by the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment (CIPSRT) and CIHR which includes CIHR’s recently announced $11 million in grants for research into PTSD in public safety personnel.