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Online tool for first responders provides key mental health support

An innovative new online tool, created to help address the mental health needs of Public Safety Personnel (PSP) including First Responders, is having an important impact on Public Safety Personnel and First Responders across Saskatchewan and Quebec,
Weyburn police

An innovative new online tool, created to help address the mental health needs of Public Safety Personnel (PSP) including First Responders, is having an important impact on Public Safety Personnel and First Responders across Saskatchewan and Quebec, particularly during the current pandemic.

Launched just months before the pandemic impacted all sectors, and especially front-line workers, around the world, PSPNET at the University of Regina has already provided critical access to online mental health services for nearly 200 First Responders and other PSP.

A resource like this is very valuable for police members, said Weyburn Police Chief Jamie Blunden, who noted the information on how to access it is provided for members to access on their own in anonymity.

“It’s optional for our members. It’s a portal on the Internet to give members to educate themselves or to use, and they can set themselves up for the courses,” said Chief Blunden, adding the City of Weyburn provides employee assistance programs that members can access, including the provision of a psychologist if they wish.

The PSPNET “gives the members an opportunity to interact online if they wish,” said the chief, noting they wish to remove any stigma to any request for help to deal with any mental health issues, such as PTSD, or stress from any traumatic situation they’ve had to deal with as police officers. He noted sometimes officers with PTSD don’t know if the situation warrants going to a mental health specialist, but this way a member can reach out online and find out if there are issues they should maybe deal with.

“This has been a very challenging year for Public Safety Personnel. Not only are they dealing with the day-to-day work, which includes challenging and potentially traumatic situations, now they are also trying to manage those situations through a COVID-19 lens. Having resources like PSPNET, in addition to the internal resources each PSP group has available, has been really important to help manage anxiety and depression in a year such as this one,” said Sgt. Joy Prince, “F” Division Peer to Peer Coordinator, Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

PSPNET is free of charge for current, former and volunteer Public Safety Personnel. Public Safety Personnel include border services personnel, correctional employees, firefighters, operational and intelligence personnel, paramedics, police, public safety communicators, search and rescue personnel, among others.

The innovative new initiative combines online learning modules with weekly email or telephone support from a real therapist. PSPNET involves an eight-week program that provides free and confidential access to treatment for symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other Posttraumatic Stress Injuries (PTSI).

PSPNET was co-developed with PSP to ensure the on-line material for each course of treatment was tailored specifically for PSP and then made available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with optional therapist support on Monday to Friday. That means support is conveniently available for PSP. PSPNET enables PSP to access the service privately, reducing some of the stigma-related barriers to accessing mental health services.

“Mental health challenges among PSP are common, problematic, and often under-treated, especially in PSP. Many PSP regularly experience potentially psychologically traumatic events every day at work. However, PSP also report significant stigma attached with accessing the support they need to keep helping all of us. Thanks to help from many PSP, we have tailored a program to meet the needs of PSP who have unique challenges because of the nature of their work,” said Dr. Heather Hadjistavropoulos, principal investigator, PSPNET.

Individuals who accessed PSPNET courses in 2020 have said the courses had a very positive impact on their mental health.

“Nearly 90 per cent of individuals who have taken the eight-week online therapy and PSPNET courses have reported increased confidence and ability to manage their symptoms. Nearly 90 per cent have also seen their symptoms of anxiety and depression reduced and maintained at non-clinical levels. The current results evidence PSPNET is making a major difference to PSP who have enrolled in the program,” said Hadjistavropoulos.

In fact, more than 100 individuals took and finished the eight-week online course in 2020, most working in corrections, paramedicine, and policing; 
nearly 90 per cent of PSP who took the online PSP wellbeing course of treatment reported increased confidence and ability to manage their symptoms; 
nearly 90 per cent of participants said their symptoms of anxiety and depression were reduced and maintained at non-clinical levels, as a result of taking the program; 
96 per cent said they would refer a friend to the program; and, 
98 per cent said taking the course had been worth their time.

To date, in Saskatchewan 137 First Responders and other PSP have accessed programming through PSPNET. The intent is to eventually roll PSPNET out across the country to so that all Canadian PSP are able to access the programs.

PSPNET is a pilot project supported through a $10 million investment by Public Safety Canada as part of the government’s Action Plan on Posttraumatic Stress Injuries.