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Helping the Helping Hands: Mental Health Care for First Responders

Stories | 07.10.19

Sookyung Ahn is a painter, Registered Therapeutic Counsellor, and a student in the Master of Counselling Psychology: Art Therapy program in Vancouver. She is also now specially trained to provide therapy to first responders. Ahn has taken the first two levels of the Occupational Awareness Training for Health Care Professionals in British Columbia, adding to her repertoire of unique art therapy expertise. She shared with us her experience and why she decided to take the first responder training.

I live in Downtown Eastside (DTES) in Vancouver, which is the battleground for the opioid crisis, and I keep a Naloxone kit in my apartment just in case someone has overdosed in my back alley. I pass by Fire Hall #2, located in DTES, frequently on my way to my practicum sites. It is nice to see the firefighters smiling and waving at me during their down time. I see them in my apartment building whenever our fire alarm goes off. I want to help people like them who respond to emergency situations. I thought about offering an open art studio where they could relax and unfold their concerns while creating art, but I did not know where to start.

So, when I learned about the Occupational Awareness Training for Health Care Professionals, I registered without hesitation. This course, BC Professional Fire Fighters Association (BCPFFA), is designed for mental health professionals interested in expanding their skill set in treating first responders, including fire fighters, police officers, paramedics, and dispatchers. During the two-day training, I learned about the daily routine of the fire fighters, their unique work culture and subculture, types of trauma exposure, their usual coping strategies and maladaptive responses, and the peer support initiatives.

By attending the training, I learned that the BCPFFA’s initiative has been broadened to include nurses, care aid workers, and Canada Border Service Agency personnel. Upon the enactment of the Bill-211, the Federal Framework on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Act, the government has opened the path to address the challenges of recognizing the symptoms and providing timely diagnosis and treatment of post-traumatic stress injury. The first responders prefer to use the term “post- traumatic stress injury” to try to reduce the stigma associated with “disorder”.

The government of British Columbia also made an effort to reduce the barriers for the first responders to claim the mental health supports by introducing the Section 55 Presumptive Regulation where the first responders’ trauma injury is recognized and the barriers to the services are removed. I was almost in shock when the presenter from WorkSafe BC, the worker’s compensation board, explained the lengthy and convoluted claim process that could result in retraumatizing the claimants. I applaud the government’s efforts to streamline access to the services.

I would like to continue to follow on-going mental health initiatives created through the BCPFFA, with the intention of reducing the stigma of mental health challenges for all first responders. One of the leading initiatives is the online referral or network system, First Responder Health, which can be an easy and useful tool for the first responders to connect with the healthcare professionals nearby in timely manner. Through the Occupational Awareness Training for Therapists, BCPFFA aims to create a network of clinicians throughout the province and continue to lobby for all employers of the first responders to recognize Registered Clinical Counsellors under existing Extended Health Plans. Currently, their plan only includes psychiatrists and psychologists, which limits availability and results in a long waiting list.

I have a relative who is a firefighter in Whistler and is suffering from post- traumatic stress injury after dealing with many fatal motor vehicle accidents in the Sea-to-Sky highway. As I am too close to him to provide therapy myself and I do not know who to refer him to, I have not been able to help him. Now, with the First Responder Health network, I can assist him to reach out to the professionals located near him. I can also now help my neighbor first responders in DTES, including Fire Hall #2 fire fighters, as I am in their network. One day, I will bring them a home-baked apple cake to introduce myself.

Adler University is the pioneer in social justice graduate programs, and many of our community partners are helping marginalized populations in DTES. Many students even work side-by-side with first responders. I believe helping the helping hands is meaningful and the right thing to do.

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