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Coaldale firefighters receive additional mental health supports

Click to play video 'Coaldale and Lethbridge fire departments discuss mental health supports' Coaldale and Lethbridge fire departments discuss mental health supports
WATCH ABOVE: In March, Coaldale and District Emergency Services launched a the Firefighter Mental Health program to expand psychological supports for its staff and volunteers. Eloise Therien takes a look at the role mental health plays in the high-stress profession of a first responder. – Sep 25, 2020

In an effort to bolster supports for volunteer firefighters in the town, the Coaldale and District Emergency Services (CDES) have launched a new program focused on mental health support.

Implemented in March, the Firefighter Mental Health program is designed to allow first responders to seek the help of a trained psychologist in an easily-accessible and confidential manner.

“We firefighters and paramedics are at a higher risk of developing psychological injuries from our jobs, so we just identified a gap that we needed to do something more here in Coaldale,” fire chief Kevin McKeown said.

“The last thing we want is these volunteer firefighters suffering in silence.”

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Previously, the 31 volunteer firefighters and four staff members were directed to the Employment Assistance Program (EAP) through the Town of Coaldale, which McKeown says wasn’t highly used.

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The new program began with a meet-and-greet with the psychologists at Envision Wellbeing. Now that it has been in place for several months, McKeown says several members have taken advantage of the program.

However, McKeown added the exact amount of participation isn’t known due to the anonymous nature of the process.

“All we get is an invoice at the end of the month, you know, for a certain amount of sessions, and we don’t know who it is and who went,” McKeown explained.

“I think that is good, it removes one of those barriers again for some people that are reluctant to seek help.”

CDES employee Parker McGill says the job can be very difficult at times, and it’s often hard to relay those feelings to friends and family.

“Having somebody to guide you through what might be happening helps big time,” McGill said.

“It also helps everybody at home too, because relating to people that don’t know about this and what you’re going through can be a tough conversation to have.”

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Lethbridge Fire and EMS say they have similar programs in place to support their 160 staff throughout their time with the department.

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Deputy Chief Gerrit Sinke says the discussion of mental health used to be considered taboo but has seen a huge shift in recent years.

“Over the last ten years or so, the mental health conversation has gone from an unsafe one to something that is absolutely safe,” Sinke said.

“Research around mental health, especially as it pertains to first responders, is continually evolving, and as such we’re always looking to that research — and we will evolve our programs along with that.”

Probationary firefighters are currently in the last weeks of their training with the Lethbridge Fire Department. James Akerley has been an EMT for eight years and says his experience before coming to Lethbridge could have been better.

“They weren’t always readily available, or emphasized that they were there for us,” he said. “I feel very reassured and quite proud to be a part of Lethbridge fire.”

Coaldale is located approximately 17 kilometres east of Lethbridge