A B.C. ambulance paramedic is seen outside the Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver, B.C. Monday, March 23, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

In a pandemic, those on the front lines face unique mental health challenges

Virtual counselling, created by a firefighter, to help health-care workers, first responders and police

Their life’s work is centred around helping others, but when it comes to the mental health of those on the front lines of the pandemic, who is there for them?

Health-care workers and first responders have felt the brunt of COVID-19 since it touched down in B.C., from inside hospitals and care homes, but also while responding to 911 calls during a time when an extra layer of risk has been added to each emergency event.

Matt Johnston, a Lower Mainland firefighter and registered clinical counsellor, understands the impact that psychological stress can have on a first responder better than anyone.

In a phone interview with Black Press Media, Johnston said the ongoing pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated stressors for every frontline worker.

READ MORE: B.C. unveils $5M for mental health supports during the COVID-19 pandemic

“The shock of the pandemic has put everyone in survival mode,” he said. “A lack of understanding about where this is all going is going to be something that hits us on a very deep level in the coming weeks and months.”

In November 2019, Johnston helped create First Responder Health, an online mental health directory that is specifically tailored to first responders in the province. The directory, which first included 150 specially trained therapists and counsellors, now has close to 400 mental health professionals.

Each of the clinicians on the platform have undergone additional training specifically on how to understand the unique pressures that first responders and health-care workers face.

Since mid-February, there has been a 200 per cent increase in the number of visits to First Responder Health, a statistic that is increasing sharply as emergency workers feel the long-term effects of dealing with the crisis.

READ MORE: B.C. firefighters only responding to most life-threatening calls during COVID-19 pandemic

Paramedics, firefighters and emergency room nurses in larger communities have spent much of the last four years responding to overdoses, serving on the front lines of B.C.’s first – and still ongoing – provincial health emergency.

But Johnston said the COVID-19 health crisis has brought new concerns to those on the front lines.

“The nature of trauma exposure right now is challenging the traditional definition of trauma. Trauma involves a highly distressing event that has a major consequence on thoughts, feelings, behaviour after witnessing,” Johnston said.

“In this case, the traumatic stressor is largely invisible – we aren’t aware of the transmission. You could be asymptomatic and still carry the virus and pass on to others.”

In addition, health care workers and their families are facing the same turbulence others are facing due to the pandemic, such as financial stress and issues at home.

“We know this crisis is putting significant strain behind closed doors,” Johnston said. That’s why First Responder Health also offers supports for family members of health-care workers, through 21 therapists trained to understand the impacts on the loved ones of public safety workers.

“There is a lot of anxiety, regardless of what profession you’re in, around protecting loved ones while balancing your career.”

More clinicians wanting to help while reducing financial barriers

First Responder Health has been able to offer virtual counselling to health-care workers in all corners of the province, removing barriers for those in remote communities.

The selling point for many users is the fact that no username or sign-in is required to use the online directory, which includes stand-alone profiles of each clinician available to help.

Therapists and counsellors have not been exempt from the financial downfall hitting businesses across the country. This, plus a growing appetite to help emergency workers, has led to a 400 per cent increase in the number of clinicians taking First Responder Health’s online course in order to be part of the directory.

“We approached all the telemedicine clinicians and asked if they would be willing to offer a discount,” Johnston said. “The group that we have online have all agreed to reduce services to close to 50 per cent.”

Johnston called it a careful balance of keeping clinicians working while also giving frontline workers the help they surely need.

“Frontline workers and first responders need mental health services, arguably now more than ever, and in the coming months.”


@ashwadhwani
ashley.wadhwani@bpdigital.ca

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