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Windsor-Essex County Health Unit develops mental health curriculum for first responders in training

Health unit rolls out mental health curriculum for first responders in training

Mental health education for first responders in training is being rolled out through post-secondary schools in Windsor.

Years in the making, the training was created by the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit in consultation with area first responders and St. Clair College.

Gordon Thane, the health unit’s manager of chronic disease and injury prevention, recently told the board of health the training could reach 2,500 students each year if it’s included in nine local college and university programs.

“We know that, based on the nature of their occupations, first responders are more at risk for negative mental health outcomes from post-traumatic stress disorder,” Thane said.

The project stems from a 2016 amendment to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act that required employers of first responders to develop and implement post-traumatic stress disorder prevention plans.

The Ministry of Labour then issued a call for proposals for the Occupational Health, Safety, and Prevention Innovation Program. In response, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit worked closely with local first responder organizations to submit a successful proposal outlining six project commitments. That included a commitment to work with St. Clair College on developing a mental health educational module to support the resilience of first responders during their post-secondary training.

After that, the health unit interviewed 29 representatives from law enforcement, fire and rescue, paramedic, and emergency health care, and consulted 30 post-secondary representatives and mental health providers. The conversations highlighted a need for educational materials covering four themes: resilience and coping; mental health literacy; help-seeking and intervention; and role preparation.

In the fall of 2021, the health unit developed and implemented training modules. It developed 20 lessons for the four module themes, including PowerPoint slide decks, case studies, lesson plans, multimedia and interactive components, and activities.

Select training material has been piloted in two courses at St. Clair College.

The module content is currently at various stages of review and implementation in nine post-secondary first responder programs, including nursing programs at the university and college, and paramedic, policing, security, firefighting, and community justice programs at the college.

If widely implemented, the modules could reach more than 2,500 students each year.

“That is a very innovative approach,” said Dr. Ken Blanchette, the health unit’s CEO. “Instead of just going to the public and having conversations or doing other venues, we are now training a force to be able to advocate on (mental health), and then continuing that education every year.”

Outside of educational settings, the region has another 1,500 people employed as first responders. Thane said employers could use the mental health modules developed by the health unit to train new hires.