SFU launches first online First Responders Trauma Prevention and Recovery program

Yvonne Tabin (dean pro tem, SFU Lifelong Learning), Vince Savoia and Larry White

Every day, lives are saved by the work that first responders perform. While vital to society, many first responders deal with extreme cases of trauma and sadness as a result of their occupation.

That is why Larry White, director, career and professional programs for SFU Continuing Studies, was in complete support of Vince Savoia, founder of Tema Conter Memorial Trust, when he approached White about “the concept of a program to support the mental wellness of first responders.”

Savoia and his foundation have “been reporting on what they call the epidemic of suicide of first responders, who are suffering from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],” said White. He also told The Peak that Savoia “felt there was something that we could do that would be significant to help offset the epidemic of suicide.”  

Advocacy groups have been formed by first responders themselves to raise awareness and support for first responders living with PTSD. According to Tema, so far this year, 41 first responders and 10 military individuals have committed suicide throughout Canada.

The high number of cases of PTSD and suicide has prompted provinces to change legislation to stop first responders having to prove that their PTSD is a result of their work.

SFU Continuing Studies announced in January that first responders could register for White and Savoia’s program, which began this fall. The program has made strides across Canada, seeing 61 students enrolled in the first course. These students are made up of not only traditional first responders such as police, ambulance, military, and correctional workers, but also hospital employees, victims services employees, and members of search and rescue teams.

The online nature of the 300-hour, 10-course program allows first responders to work at their own pace with a few deadlines along the way.

White explained, “We are making the program available online so we can reach the broadest possible audience, and make this opportunity for learning about how to support yourself and mitigate instances from jobs up to the broadest possible first responders audience.” He added that the program is probably the most “comprehensive program that supports first responders and their mental health that [he has] been able to discover anywhere in the world.”

The program’s complexity aims to provide first responders with a “personal resilience toolkit.” White explained that the courses, taught by both first responders and clinical psychologists, will offer students the fundamentals to address some of the stigma surrounding mental illness that they may face in their field, as well as “how first responders’ jobs impact their mental wellness and the challenges they face up to and including post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The two-year development of the program included a national advisory committee and consultations with first responders. These exposed how important it was for students to interact with other participants in the program. White explained that the online Canvas modules “allow ample opportunity to do that.”

This Continuing Studies program also offers a 24/7 partnership with Morneau Shepell, the largest employee assistance provider in the country. This partnership includes a team of professional service providers who “work with first responders and help to meet their mental health needs,” in the event that some of the program may trigger trauma from their past work, said White.  

White hopes that the first wave of first responders will share this Continuing Studies program with their colleagues, to encourage another surge of registrations. “[We’re] very excited about the program,” he said. “It is probably the most socially significant program that I’ve had the opportunity to work on.”

More information and a listing of information sessions for the First Responders Trauma Prevention and Recovery program can be found on the SFU Continuing Studies website.

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