The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Alberta Division works in partnership with OSI-CAN, an organization facilitating peer support and relationship building for first responders, military and public safety personnel dealing with operational stress injuries (OSI) and post-traumatic stress injuries (PTSI). Michael Skinner, a firefighter and advanced care paramedic, has been a frontline emergency worker for 28 years. With his own lived experiences with mental health challenges related to his job, he can support other responders – enabling his story to become part of others’ survival guide. He’s been a key leader in peer support initiatives for first responders in Alberta, working with OSI-CAN in Saskatchewan and Manitoba to bring this peer support project to his home province.
A Changed Perception of Everyday Life
Michael has witnessed the impact of the pandemic on first responders’ mental health. “With the widespread proportions of COVID-19, I’ve seen first-hand the increased tension, unease, anxiety and angst of my peers and colleagues,” Michael says. “Much of this pressure comes from rapidly changing guidelines, long hours in full PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and repeated exposure to suspected and confirmed COVID cases.” He explains that with so little known about the disease, and the copious amounts of information and misinformation, there has been fear, trepidation and unease. “Of the accounts and conversations I’ve had with other paramedics, firefighters and police officers, the situation has changed everyone’s perception of their job and environment. Many have shown and openly communicated about increased stress, feeling overwhelmed and feeling under-supported.”
Emergency Medical Services (EMS) are regularly called to deal with COVID positive or COVID suspected patients, resulting in first responders being continuously at-risk, and worried about taking the virus home to their families. When speaking about his own mental health, Michael says the “economy, social mentalities and lack of protection from the virus” have changed his perception of everyday life. Because both Michael and his wife are on the frontlines, his children face the realities of COVID-19 intimately. “It’s been tough on our kids. They have certainly been down or depressed about the lack of socialization, fear about us being in the COVID environment and the uncertainty of the future.”
Even with the pressing concerns for first responders’ mental wellbeing, Michael acknowledges providing mental health support for frontline workers can be a struggle. He explains while programs like Employee Family Assistance Programs (EFAP), Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) and peer support services like OSI-CAN are available, many first responders are reluctant to access them until there is a major crisis in their lives.
“The cumulative stress of COVID will eventually take its toll, and people need to be ready for that,” Michael cautions. “Self-care is one of the biggest things I can suggest – look after yourself in the best ways possible to feel whole, healthy and connected.” He says first responders should find outlets to release pent-up emotion and create healthy expression. Michael’s reminder is this isn’t the new normal but instead the ‘now normal.’ “COVID is going to be a marathon,” Michael says, “so understanding what it’s going to take to remain healthy and vibrant is very important.
If you would like to thank EMS workers for their dedication and sacrifice, Thankaparamedic.com is a website created by Alberta Health Services, allowing visitors to submit ‘thank you’ notes to EMS members.
If you or a loved one is experiencing mental health distress during this time, please call 211 (Alberta only) or the Mental Health Help Line at 1-877-303-2642.