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New mental health program helps first responders across Ontario

Click to play video 'New mental health program helps first responders across Ontario' New mental health program helps first responders across Ontario
WATCH: The COVID-19 pandemic has been hitting a lot of people including frontline workers hard, both physically and mentally. Wounded Warrior and Ontario Shores have created a program to help with first responders' mental health. Aaron Streck reports – Jun 4, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has been hitting a lot of people hard, both physically and mentally. For those on the front line, it’s taken even more of a toll on their ability to cope, day-to-day.

So Wounded Warriors Canada and Ontario Shores have created a program to help with first responders’ mental health.

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“You’re investigating the most serious of incidents,” said Mariano Perini, Whitby Fire and Emergency Services Deputy Chief.

In a career that spans three decades as a first responder, Perini has seen it all. He spent 11 years with Durham police, and several more with the Ontario Fire Marshal’s office before coming to Whitby Fire and Emergency Services.

“You’re exposed to certain events and a lot of those events, as much as you try to prepare for, are traumatic and they simply compound over time,” said Perini.

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Years of built-up stress, came to a breaking point two years ago, forcing Perini to seek help for his mental health.

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“There was an accumulation of incidents particularly involving young children. There’s not just one program that fits,” said Perini.

Knowing others suffer too, Perini spent the past few months helping to develop a new program to help first responders.

“It’s so important to have those people to understand the environments, the disciplines and the cultures and they speak the language of the first responders,” said Perini.

READ MORE: First response during the reality of COVID-19

It’s an important issue, one that brought Wounded Warriors Canada and Ontario Shores together to launch this First Responder Assist program.

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“We know that the prevalence of mental health conditions is significantly higher in first responder groups compared to the general community and of course the pandemic has enhanced those concerns,” said Dr. Karima Velji, vice president of Ontario Shores Clinical Services.

While group-based therapy is what Wounded Warriors primarily offers, the new program allows individual sessions, in person or virtually.

“This program will allow the equivalent of two full-time clinicians to be embedded right here at Wounded Warriors Canada headquarters,” said Philip Ralph, Wounded Warriors Canada Health Services Director.

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Wounded Warriors says between 10 and 35 per cent of first responders in Canada will experience a mental health challenge during their career. The program is set up to help around 200 across Ontario.

“We know that our programs are changing and saving lives but expanding access is an important part in what we do,” said Ralph.

Funding for the program comes out of money Ontario Shores gets from the province.

First responders can self-refer to the program, or get a referral from a medical professional.

As for Mariano Perini, he says it’s an opportunity for others like him to feel comfortable in getting help without judgment.

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