The Working Mind for First Responders: Course Review

13 mins read

The Working Mind for First Responders is a program offered by The Mental Health Commission of Canada. It’s (luckily!) available online for first responders and response leaders in Canada. The course was molded from a course previously offered and widely known titles Road to Mental Readiness. It’s core messaging surrounds peer support, reducing stigma and equipping participants to help engage with people who may be showing signs and symptoms of emotional distress.

The Working Mind for First Responders is a program offered by The Mental Health Commission of Canada. It’s (luckily!) available online for first responders and response leaders in Canada. The course was molded from a course previously offered and widely known titles Road to Mental Readiness. It’s core messaging surrounds peer support, reducing stigma and equipping participants to help engage with people who may be showing signs and symptoms of emotional distress.

In my not-so-recent history, I have a college diploma in the field of Social Service Work. With a good decade of experience in working with different populations, I feel like the CISM side of the fire service would be a place I can add some value. Like Domenic was quick to point out, we have practices and expectations of the person wearing a cast over their leg. That’s where injuries to the mind are starkly different – it can be impossible to tell. Equipped well, a peer can at least reach into the waves and offer a hand. I’d like to do that.

The evidence based program is split into 4 modules for those that take the ‘leadership’ course. Module 1 is designed to define concepts and recognize stigma.

Stigma. That’s something we have all experienced.

I know I certainly have.

My relationship with mental health, like most people, has been an important give and take over the years. I’ve had my swings with depression and anxiety. Where darkness in thoughts is concerned, I know for certain what that feels like. More importantly, I also know how to crawl back to the light. I’ve detailed that story a number of times, so for now, I’ll focus this article on The Working Mind for First Responders.

Domenic was clear about a key point in Module 1. Our current reality is creating new challenges. Most people have 3 or 4 coping strategies. Especially during COVID-era lockdowns, some of those coping strategies may depend on external facilities being available. That’s something to key in on and be aware of. If needing external facilities is something that resonates with you, perhaps it’s time to pivot into some form of those activities that you can be solely responsible for.

50 percent of Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness by age 40.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada

We know that our peers are going to experience a time to wrestle with their mental health. It can take us up to 2 to 3 weeks to process an event, good or bad. Sometimes much longer. Knowing that, it would seem to me that a reasonable person shouldn’t be able to find any justification whatsoever to hold somebody who is in crisis over the coals. Statistically, we will know somebody close to us who will suffer.

Noting that we’re likely to bump into somebody experiencing some trouble with mental well-being, it’s important to note that the conversations we’ll eventually have aren’t likely to cause immediate changes. In fact, we should focus on being a listener, not a helper.

When you notice somebody isolating themselves, that’s an indicator.

Withdrawl comes with added stress. We naturally want to shield ourselves. It’s no wonder that an epidemic of loneliness has befallen some of the population. What may have been a consequence of our evolving technology, this new wave of loneliness has swept through our culture with COVID.

(a) new report suggests that 36% of all Americans—including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children—feel “serious loneliness.” Not surprisingly, loneliness appears to have increased substantially since the outbreak of the global pandemic.

How the Pandemic Has Deepened an Epidemic of Loneliness and What We Can Do About It, Richard Weissbourd, Milena Batanova, Virginia Lovison, and Eric Torres
Mental Health Continuum by The Working Mind for First Responders

When we started Module 2, a segment focused strictly on the Mental Health Continuum, I was interested to see some of the signs and symptoms of decline. A study in 2016 and 2017 found that only 23% of Canadians felt comfortable talking to a supervisor about mental health. That’s where peers come in. Using the chart provided by The Working Mind for First Responders, you can plot out behavioral health on a spectrum. Where somebody is plotted on the spectrum can help a peer understand when it may be time to seek professional help.

Which brings us to another important point.

You are not a mental health professional – unless you are.

Don’t diagnose.

The chart above is to help us determine where we might be and respond accordingly. It’s split into categories that span our mood, attitude, performance, physical changes and addictive behaviors. Some of these elements will be visible to the outside world. Some are only available with admission. Domenic told us that outward anger usually shows up between the Yellow and Orange levels of this continuum, and that if some of these negative emotions and behaviors are present for 2-3 weeks, it’s time to seek professional help.

If a peer is in that Red zone and you determine there is a suicide risk present, you will have a difficult decision to make – it may be time to seek professional intervention against the wishes of that person. You should take a course like The Working Mind for First Responders to determine when that might be.

Most importantly, you can ask, listen, believe, reassure and act.

Module 3 was regarding the ‘Big 4’. These strategies were developed by the US Navy to build resilience. Our structures built against stressors can be strengthened. Like a skill.

The Big 4 consists of (you guessed it!) 4 strategies to strengthen our resolve.

  • Tactical Breathing (4 in, 4 out)
  • Positive Self Talk
  • Mental Rehearsal
  • Goal Setting

If you need help setting goals, consider The Wedge, a free and open-source program I designed in 2021.

SEALFIT outlines the Big 4

The Big 4 is a GREAT resource. I was very happy to see that two things I’m practicing actively are backed up by research.

When I’m entering a call, I practice box breathing. So, I’ll inhale slowly (4 seconds), hold and exhale slowly (4 seconds). That was introduced to me in recruit class and significantly enables me to really close in on my tasks.

Second, the mental rehearsal aspect of the Big 4 as taught by The Working Mind for First Responders was another net positive. When I’m drilling at the station, I’ll pull out the medical bags and actually visualize a call, stepping my way through the EMR checklist. I like to pretend that I’m actually in the call, making decisions. There are a handful of awesome first-aid scenario generators out there to help design the ‘call’ I’m responding to. Hearing from a solid source that this practice is as helpful as I thought was really empowering.

Shield. Sense. Support.

The final module was based on leadership. A simple system presented three things we can do to help drive good behavioural health in our departments. Where our peers are in that green zone of the continuum, we can build out resources to help them become more resilient. When somebody is living inside that yellow / orange area, that’s where we sense that there is something wrong. In the red, we’re actively supporting our peers by bringing in the things necessary to prevent crisis.

A tool for the apparatus bay was introduced late in the course. An Adhoc Incident Review (AIR) is an informal leadership tool to reduce stress. It takes place immediately following a stressful event but after the threat of that event has passed. In three steps covered in more detail during the course, leaders can Acknowledge, Inform and Respond to the needs of their crew. I’ll be using this tool – even without the title or designation, water boils from the bottom. If you see that an event could have had an impact on your team, the right thing to do would be having a quick AIR session to vent out some of the pressure.

Empathy is feeling with people.

The last part of the course wrapped up with a discussion on empathy. It was once explained to me that empathy is the process of experiencing somebody else’s perspective by being rooted in our own. Or, by keeping one foot in our shoes and one foot in theirs.

The process of exploring empathy is important because it allows us to see the world from a different lens. That might help us respond correctly. We’ve all been in a situation where it seems like a friend is blowing an issue way out of proportion. With good empathy skills, we can better try to understand why our friend might be having that reaction – not just see the reaction from our eyes alone.

If you’re reading this article because you’re interested in taking the course, let me help you out with that;

Click here to schedule your course.

This course is a useful tool to keep in your pocket. It’s something that can be stored away until it needs to be deployed. The best part is, if something you’ve learned in this course needs to be deployed, there’s a real problem and you’ll be prepared to hit it head-on.

Bill Dungey is a volunteer firefighter in Ontario, Canada. He is focused on fitness, mindset development and finding training opportunities to help the fire service make things better.

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