Now, more than ever, working as a first responder can be demanding and hazardous. Public safety personnel (PSP) put their lives on the line to keep the rest of us safe. Whether they are responding to accidents, fatalities, violence, natural disasters or, most recently, a global pandemic, PSP are routinely exposed to stressful and potentially traumatic incidents.
Such situations can take a toll on physical and mental health, leaving PSP with often invisible stress injuries. They may experience a gamut of issues including anxiety, panic and relationship difficulties.
That’s precisely why, earlier this year, a team of researchers and clinicians at the University of Regina (U of R) launched a new project called Public Safety Personnel Internet-delivered Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (PSPNET), led by U of R psychology professor Heather Hadjistavropoulos.
Currently free of charge to Saskatchewan-based PSP, PSPNET enhances access to treatment and improves the well-being of police officers, firefighters, paramedics, correctional employees, border services personnel and public-safety communications officials living with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress injuries.
With services delivered online, PSPNET (www.pspnet.ca) is readily accessible for PSP whose duties often involve shift work and long hours. There’s no need to schedule appointments or to travel – PSPNET can be accessed whenever and wherever is convenient. “Clients typically take the course over eight weeks, whenever it works best for them,” says Dr. Hadjistavropoulos.
We know that internet-based cognitive behaviour therapy (ICBT) works. It’s very comparable to face-to-face care and at the same time improves access.— Dr. Heather Hadjistavropoulos, Psychology professor at the University of Regina
Course materials are available for up to a year, and therapist support is available for up to 16 weeks. While the course presents a set of core strategies, clients decide what resonates for them. “It’s really up to individuals how they want to approach it. Some will use the materials and do suggested activities daily, while others will work on materials once a week; some really make use of therapist support. It depends on the person and the severity of symptoms,” emphasizes Dr. Hadjistavropoulos.
PSPNET’s online platform is also capable of supporting many PSP. “With this type of treatment, you can treat many more people than a single therapist could ever do,” says Dr. Hadjistavropoulos. “Especially for PSP with milder symptoms, it doesn’t take a lot of time for therapists to touch base. Many times, it only takes about 15 minutes as compared to the typical hour for a face-to-face therapy session. That means a full-time therapist can work with about 60 clients, which would be impossible in traditional therapy.
“We know that internet-based cognitive behaviour therapy (ICBT) works,” she affirms. “It’s very comparable to face-to-face care and at the same time improves access. The basis of PSPNET is a very strongly researched program.”
While past research shows ICBT is effective, it’s important that research is a key component of PSPNET. “It’s critical that research is a piece of this,” says Dr. Hadjistavropoulos. “The tendency is to provide a service, but not do research that contributes to development. If you don’t do the research, you’re not going to develop it in a way that fully meets the needs of PSP, and it won’t necessarily incorporate new knowledge. This is a new area; the technology is always changing. As the tech improves, what we do should also change.”
Prior to launching PSPNET, critical research was carried out to tailor ICBT for PSP. “This is the first ICBT clinic that’s dedicated to PSP,” emphasizes Dr. Hadjistavropoulos. “We did interviews beforehand with 100 PSP and found they have higher rates of anxiety and depression, and higher levels of reluctance to get treatment. Reasons include time, access, cost, privacy and, at times, perceptions that existing services are not geared towards them.” As a result, PSPNET focuses specifically on the unique needs and situations of PSP.
As clients go through the course and for up to a year following, their symptoms are measured. As well, clients are encouraged to give feedback throughout. “We have already made modifications based on feedback; the evaluation is continuous,” says Dr. Hadjistavropoulos. PSPNET is set to launch next in Quebec. The hope is that eventually it will be made available to all PSP in Canada.
University of Regina spearheads research for Indigenous mental health treatment
In Canada, suicide among Indigenous people is three times higher than for non-Indigenous people. Indigenous people also experience depression and anxiety in greater numbers and severity.
There are many reasons for this, but one of them is insufficient availability of and access to treatment designed specifically for Indigenous people. Indigenous youth, in particular, are lacking culturally sensitive and appropriate treatment options.
Thanks to a federal grant, a promising new program will help to address the scarcity of services. Shadi Beshai, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Regina, recently received a Canada Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Project Grant worth $165,000 for his research aimed at adapting a mindfulness-based intervention for Indigenous university students to manage depression and anxiety symptoms.
“Indigenous people of Canada still experience major mental health disparities and lack of appropriate, culturally sensitive treatment options,” says Dr. Beshai. “There’s extra imperative to develop mental health interventions that are geared toward Indigenous youth as this group faces several unique societal challenges, including increased systemic discrimination, lack of Indigenous-focused cultural education, and higher drop-out rates from post-secondary institutions.”
Dr. Beshai points out how most current mental health interventions are based on Judeo-Christian principles, which aren’t appropriate for Indigenous youth. “This cultural mismatch between the treatment and the patient is often perceived as insensitive or inappropriate, which leads people of different cultures to either never consider using these treatments or to quit soon after they start.”
Dr. Beshai will work with and consult Indigenous health and research experts for this project. Together, their work has enormous potential to address the gap in services and improve mental health for Indigenous people across Canada.
Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s Editorial Department was not involved in its creation.