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‘There’s a huge need’: Calgary-area firefighter recognized as mental health champion

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WATCH: A firefighter in the Calgary area is getting some Canada-wide recognition as a mental health champion. Gil Tucker has more on his efforts to provide support to first responders during stressful times. – Dec 6, 2021

A firefighter in the Calgary area is getting some Canada-wide recognition for his efforts to promote mental health among first responders.

Gregg Schaalje, a firefighter with Rocky View County, has been named a mental health champion by the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment.

Schaalje was recognized for creating a mental health peer support program for firefighters and all other first responders in Rocky View County.

Read more: Alberta first responders can access free daily texts to support mental health

“It’s been unbelievable to be able to work with individuals, to cry with individuals, to be able to talk with them through a situation,” Schaalje said.

One of Schaalje’s fellow firefighters says mental health support is crucial for first responders.

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“We see a lot of emergency service providers in North America committing suicide, having life-altering injuries because of situations that are created by these mental health injuries,” firefighter Devin Teal said.

Read more: A young Alberta firefighter almost took his own life – and he wants men to know why

Schaalje says he realized the toll of being a first responder during his first weeks as a young firefighter after he arrived at his first serious motor vehicle accident.

“It was a double fatality, with three people that were thrown from the vehicle,” Schaalje said, “and me being 21 years old, the chief decided we need to get some help in here, so he brought a psychologist in and doing that proved to be absolutely huge.

The chief of Rocky View County Fire Services says “there’s a huge need” for the mental health peer support program.

“In the early days, it was, ‘Suck it up,’ and if you couldn’t take it, you shouldn’t be in the service,” Chief Randy Smith said.

“Well, now we recognize that’s not correct, and we need to support our staff. We need to be there for the good and for the bad.”

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Read more: U of C study aims to create support program for families of first responders

The support program is facing increased demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s a lot of additional stress that it brings,” Teal said. “Every time we go to a call, we don’t know if the person is COVID positive. We don’t want to catch something that we are going to take to our families and make our families sick.”

Schaalje says it’s very rewarding to be able to provide the mental health program.

“It’s supporting our brothers and sisters,” Schaalje said. “It fills your heart when they come back to you and say, ‘Thanks. Thank you for helping me out.'”

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