How an Ontario app is providing mental health support for first responders

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Canada’s new mental health crisis hotline
Canada’s new mental health crisis hotline – Nov 22, 2023

Global News is looking at some of the issues that continue to loom around mental health and first responders. We’ll explore what’s being done to help first responders and what has changed over the decade.

When it comes to mental health, technology probably isn’t something many people think of right away.

However, assistance in the form of phone apps is making breakthroughs and helping first responders, including Ontario-based PeerOnCall.

Launched in May, close to 30 organizations across Canada have implemented the program and use it as a supplement to support programs, adding a segment of therapy that was missing.

McMaster researchers have designed two mobile applications to better equip Canada’s first responders with access to peer-to-peer mental health support and customized resources. McMaster University

McMaster University professor and occupational therapist Sandra Moll, who led the process of co-designing PeerOnCall and PeerOnCall Support, says making it easy for users to reach out to someone who understands is what the technology is all about.

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“I think a spouse may not understand (or) a friend who’s not a first responder, they don’t understand,” Moll says.

“So this idea of being able to link to someone who’s a peer, who really understands their unique culture, their work is really powerful.”

Sandra Moll is an associate professor with the School of Rehabilitation Science at McMaster University.
Sandra Moll is an associate professor with the School of Rehabilitation Science at McMaster University. McMaster University

Launched in the spring of 2023, the two apps target correctional officers, emergency communicators, firefighters, paramedics and members of police services.

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PeerOnCall is for public safety personnel seeking peer support, connecting users with trained providers via secure text or voice chat as well as a variety of resources like wisdom videos, evidence-informed articles and lists of local support services.

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It also includes personalized private wellness tools, including a wellness log.

PeerOnCall Support is for trained peer support providers, allowing for profile uploads to the app, which matches individuals with support seekers based on preferences.

Both apps were adapted from the source code for Beyond Silence – another mental health support app designed by the team and tailored to health-care workers.

Global News is taking a look at first responders and how the occupation affects an individual’s mental health. In a five-part series, we’ll examine what’s currently being done to help officers, firefighters and paramedics, and how supports have evolved over the last decade. Global News

Moll says design research included dialogue with police organizations, correctional facilities, firefighters and paramedics to seek out feedback on what services would best suit the unique needs of front-line workers.

A key wish from the community was anonymity, specifically allowing users to get help without the fear of a job promotion slipping away or being passed over for certain tasks due to the stigmas surrounding mental health.

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“They may be reluctant to go up and talk to someone in person,” Moll says.

“So the idea that you could connect via text or phone was another avenue …  to reduce barriers that people may have.”

Angela Schotsman, the employee wellness superintendent for the Hamilton Paramedic Service, says her members are using a different app, but it’s had a positive effect for those who use it.

“I think our level of engagement has been successful,” Schotsman says.

“Paramedics seem to be logging in and registering for the app …. looking around at some of the resources and connecting to our support team through the app.”

Hamilton Police Association president Jaimi Bannon says her members have yet to sign on to the technology but are exploring the option with the Hamilton Police Service.

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“It should have been done already,” Bannon says.

“So many big businesses and services are putting so much effort into their members, so we are exploring that and I do think it’s very helpful.”

Moll says the initial feedback from the peer programs is positive, but refinements are still a part of their ongoing research, which is taking in data regularly to make sure it’s working the way they want it to.

“At the end of this implementation research, the idea is to scale it, to be able to make it available to the people that need it across Canada. That’s always the vision for this application,” she says.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

Crisis Services Canada’s toll-free helpline provides 24-7 support at 1-833-456-4566.

Kids Help Phone operates a toll-free helpline at 1-800-668-6868 with 24-7 support for young people as well as the Crisis Text Line, which can be reached by texting HOME to 686868.

The toll-free Hope for Wellness helpline provides 24-7 support for Indigenous Peoples at 1-855-242-3310. Online chat services are also available.

Trans Lifeline operates a toll-free peer support hotline for trans and questioning people at 1-877-330-6366.

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For a directory of support services in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention at

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