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New online course aims to reduce, manage PTSD among first-responders

New course aims to reduce first-responder PTSD

VANCOUVER — A first-responder training centre in British Columbia is looking to help emergency crews reduce and manage post-traumatic stress through a new online course.

The self-directed program was developed by the Justice Institute of B.C., in New Westminster, which trains paramedics, corrections officers and other law enforcement officers.

Greg Anderson, the school's dean of applied research and graduate studies, said it's essential to give first-responders tools to help deal with working in traumatic environments.

"I see this as our moral obligation to the professions that we serve to help keep them mentally well versus just physically well," he said.

The course, which takes six to eight hours to complete, helps first-responders both prepare and respond to stressful incidents by teaching them how to identify stress, mentally rehearse, and use breathing techniques.

It helps individuals recognize their strengths and potential weaknesses in responding to traumatic incidents, Anderson said.

"It's really for them to get to know themselves and what their triggers are and increase their awareness for what those triggers will be," he said.

The course also provides problem-solving skills to help people know what to do once they have identified their stress, he added.

The Justice Institute has already tested the program on 81 paramedic students, and found the students' ability to cope and persevere after traumatic or stressful incidents increased by 23 per cent.

Finding ways to prevent or reduce the impact of post-traumatic stress on first-responders is more important now than ever, Anderson said.

Emergency crews across the country are grappling with an opioid overdose crisis that killed more than 900 people in B.C. last year. First-responders can be left with a sense of hopelessness when they are repeatedly called to help the same people, Anderson explained.

"They have more trauma today with this opioid problem in one year than most of have seen in probably the rest of their career," he said.

Improving mental health among rescuers could help reduce burnout and turnover. Anderson said many first responders only last about five to seven years in their careers and extending that time frame could be valuable to both employees and employers.

As people move up in their careers, they need more mental heath resources because they are exposed to more traumatic incidents, he said.

But developing a course wasn't simple. Anderson said there are plenty of studies and trials done in other countries, but in Canada the data was limited.

"We really do need to create this Canadian data that we can have to make better decisions from," he said.

The course was based on other programs used in countries like the United States and Israel, and information from other professions that practice trauma preparation such as nursing and emergency room medicine.

The interactive program includes a number of videos of professionals discussing their experiences with trauma and tools they used to manage the mental health effects.

Now that testing on the paramedic students is complete, Anderson said he's waiting for new funding to test the course on other professionals and students within the Justice Institute.

If the course proves to be effective for others, Anderson said they'll make it available online for free for anyone to use.

He said there's already been interest from organizations in the U.S., Australia and elsewhere.

Linda Givetash, The Canadian Press