Emotional strain on first responders leads to resurrection of stress management team

By Daniel Adam
Staff Writer

A rise in work-related stressors for front line workers has prompted the return of a peer support network.

The Critical Incident Stress Management CISM team is made up of a host of district-wide health and social service providers that can react to incidents of critical stress among coworkers and peers. They meet for training to learn how best to support each other through stressful circumstances.

David Black, who facilitates the CISM group, said about 96 per cent of individuals exposed to a serious traumatic event will experience critical incident stress.

“This is not individual work — it requires the participation of a wide variety of cross-sector disciplines that can react quickly to serious events across the district,” said Black.

He said the need for the added workplace support is partly due to the growing mental health and addictions challenges across the district.

“The outcomes of our region’s ever-increasing incidents of mental health and addictions issues affects almost, if not all, of our district justice, health, and social service providers,” said Black. “The repeated exposure to the growing number of traumatic and abnormal events throughout our area compelled us to assess the appetite amongst the allied agencies to renew the CISM team for our district care providers.”

He defined critical incidents as “unusually challenging events that have the potential to create significant human distress and can overwhelm one’s usual coping mechanisms.”

“Critical incidents profoundly affect individuals and often the communities in which they live, causing fear and uncertainty that contradict the belief that our locality is a safe and secure environment,” said Black. “Once the team leads become alerted to a situation that may produce incidents of critical stress, they initiate the CISM team members who will host a debrief that works to provide the most effective support for our distressed front-line workers.”

The Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team is a collection of health and social services professionals from across the district who come together to help peers who experience traumatic or stressful incidents. –Submitted photo

Some stressors might include threatened or actual violence, unanticipated poor patient outcomes, injury or sudden death of a co-worker on the job, major incidents involving multiple deaths and/or injuries, attempted/completed suicide, and particularly relevant for our smaller region is being called to and/or having to care for a loved one while in the course of work duties.

Black said their CISM instructor referred to potential incidents of critical stress as the “terrible ten” and included, line-of-duty death, suicide of a colleague, serious line-of-duty injury, disaster/multi-casualty incident, killing or wounding an innocent person, significant events involving children, prolonged incidents especially with loss of life, personally threatening or actual situations of violence, events with excessive media interest, or any highly-distressing event.

“Some of the concerns we have noted is not having a peer-led team that can react quickly to staff who have been exposed to incidents of critical stress,” said Black. “Another concern is the amount of overdose deaths and suicides in our region and the toll that it is taking on our care providers. In addition, we continue to be concerned about the increase in national PTSD diagnoses and suicide rates among first responders.”

He said implementing their own CISM-trained personnel enhances the ability to reach all staff that may be affected by an incident of critical stress and diminish the impact of that traumatic event. Trauma-informed personnel can mitigate the outcome of critical incidents that may occur.

Black said a CISM team existed in the west end of the district before the advent of this new team being assembled.

“Retirements, staff leaving for work in other sectors and the pandemic led to a decline in activity over the last several years,” he said. “We are fortunate to be able to retain some of the more experienced team members as valuable resources as we look to start the team again with mostly new to CISM participants.”

Black listed the following agencies participating in the CISM team education session: Riverside Health Care (Rainy River Health Centre, Mental Health & Addictions, Rainycrest Long-Term Care, Nursing and Health System Navigation), Naotkamegwanning (Whitefish Bay) EMS, Couchiching Fire Department, Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board, Rainy River District Paramedic Service, Gizhewaadiziwin Health Access Centre, Watten Fire Department, Niobe Lake Fire Department, Fort Frances Fire and Rescue, and Canadian Mental Health Association Fort Frances (Safe Bed Program and Mobile Crisis Response).