A Novel Approach to Mitigating Operational Stress

Peer Resilience Coaches: A Novel Approach to Mitigating Operational Stress Injuries within the Emergency Services and the Canadian Armed Forces

We would like to introduce a new entity, the “Peer Resilience Coach” that works in the gap between a peer supporter and a psychotherapist. Service Injury Support Centre has developed this training, which is a 3-day intensive course offered to select individuals who may or may not have had personal experience with Operational Stress Injuries.

The Peer Resilience Coach (PRC) is a uniformed professional (first responder or military member) fully operational within their organization who has undergone this specialized training. Their mission is to interact with their organizations and members, to promote healthy working conditions and healthy coping mechanisms, and to recognize common thinking patterns and situations that lead to increased psychological distress. In the overall objective of managing Operational Stress Injuries, they cover the spectrum from building resilience, through early intervention and assistance with treatment. They work in partnership with the organizational structure, with individuals and their families, and with professional resources as needed.

The ideal candidate for this training is someone who has significant lived experience and has the respect of their peers and command staff alike. The PRCs have demonstrated excellent communication skills and are wise, compassionate and psychologically minded. The candidates to be trained as Resilience Coaches are voted in by their peers and approved by the Chain of Command as well. The benefits of having PRCs working within the organizations include the fact that they can resolve conflicts, improve morale and job satisfaction, and they can prevent the development of significant Operational Stress Injuries (OSI’s). The PRCs are knowledgeable about the resources available to members of their organization and can provide referrals and be a liaison with mental health professionals. They model resilience building attitudes and behaviours. They are aware of how OSIs can occur and how they impact a person. This includes being knowledgeable about the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety states and depression, and especially Moral Injury and Institutional (Sanctuary) Trauma. They have an advantage over psychotherapists in that they have lived experience and members seeking assistance do not need to explain the culture and/or implications of their operations to an outside clinician. “There is no one that knows the job like someone who does the job”.

In cases of critical incidents that could cause PTSD or Moral Injury, the PRCs can provide group or one on one defusing and debriefing immediately after the danger has passed, before anyone goes home. They are trained to recognize signs that a person may be suffering from post- traumatic stress or burnout. They can also identify when a member might be having difficulty processing an event or might be at risk of developing a moral injury and can help the member develop healthy attitudes and behaviours that can prevent the development of longlasting OSIs.

The PRCs are strategically placed within their teams so that they can get to know the members. They can astutely recognize when there may be family obligations, mental health issues or personality traits that might need some special consideration. They may be able to help to clarify the issues or help a member find resources so that they can remain operational. The PRCs can be serving members of any rank within the organization.

The PRCs themselves will be observant to any behavioural indiscretions or code of conduct violations and will have the backing of Command Staff to address them before they lead to complaints and grievances.

The PRCs help to strengthen morale, build teams, and can be the glue that keeps the platoons working and training together for common goals. They can foster an atmosphere of support, compassion and understanding so that all members look out for each other and are willing and committed to helping each other.

Vision for a Comprehensive Mental Health Support

Vision for a Comprehensive Mental Health Support System for First Responders and Military Members

Manuela Joannou M.D. CCFP(EM)FCFP
Medical Director, Service Injury Support Centre
Founder, Project Trauma Support


Military Members for a variety of reasons, which is resulting in an increased number of insurance claims for psychological injuries and prolonged absences from work. This is unsustainable, both in financial terms and in terms of the quality of emergency service available to society. But the real cost is to the affected first responders, who may have their lives ravaged as a cost of being in service. This document will summarize opportunities for improved working conditions and points of intervention where psychological injury claims and absences are decreased, and overall service, career satisfaction and longevity is increased. We propose that more can be done to improve emergency service workers’ and military member’s resilience, and that leadership skill and sensitivity in addressing mental health of their members can be enhanced. There needs to be more recognition that Moral Injury very often causes the burden of suffering and needs to be addressed. Peer resilience coaches can be selected and trained to provide skillful, timely and cost -effective support and early intervention. Likewise, special teams of physicians and other allied health professionals with emergency experience can be trained to provide specialized care with improved cost and effectiveness.


In assessing the challenges of improving mental health within the emergency first responder services, it is apparent that stigma is a significant obstacle. Emergency Services and Defense organizations must incorporate educational programming for their command staff, new recruits and seasoned serving members to help them better understand the psychological impacts of their operations. This would include education on importance of sleep and healthy lifestyle to counter the effects of shift work and overtime hours necessitated by difficult calls. The concept of potentially psychologically and morally injurious incidents should be explored, and members should be supported in developing their own personal resilience philosophies and strengthening their own healthy coping mechanisms.

Command Staff should be given education on how to be more sensitive to the needs of their members who might be dealing with some psychological as well as physical impacts of their work. Leaders should make a point of getting to know their members well, so that they can notice early signs of difficulty. They should be especially tuned in to recognize that some behaviours that could lead to disciplinary measures could be early signs of PTSD, depression, substance abuse or other signs of mental health impairment. In addition, command staff should have a forum where they can be free to seek help and peer support for themselves without suffering any career repercussions.

The overall culture should be one of support, camaraderie and compassion, reflected through attitudes that foster improved morale, dedication and career satisfaction.


Members and supervisors alike should get regular training in improving their own mental resilience and should be made to feel comfortable coming forth when they are noticing the early signs of stress.

Their first line of resources should ideally come from their own Family Physician, but they should also have access to carefully selected and trained peer Resilience Coaches, who are colleagues that have lived experience on the job but have had extra training in helping others to examine their own attitudes and thought patterns that can lead to increased psychological distress.

Members should feel comfortable speaking with their immediate supervisors, knowing that their requests for help or special considerations will be met with kindness and compassion. Every effort should be made to give members the accommodations that they need in order to get them back to being fully operational as soon as they are able.

Members should be encouraged to check in with their physicians on regular, at least yearly intervals, and have physical as well as psychological assessments done. If it is felt that members need more extensive psychological care than what the family physician or resilience coach can provide, they should be referred to a dedicated mental health professional.

There should be a team of specially trained mental health clinicians available to work with emergency service personnel. These should have either some personal experience working in emergency fields themselves or have taken it upon themselves to learn as much as they can about the culture of the emergency services, the types of critical incidents first responders may have to attend, and the impacts of such exposures.

Family members of first responders should also have access to educational programs that allow them to be alerted to the first subtle signs of operational stress, and what resources are available to help their loved ones. Many social workers and psychologists are trained in family therapy and can offer good supports to spouses and children of first responders who might be impacted vicariously by a first responder’s work stress.



If the above measures are in place, much will be done to address the cumulative stress of front- line service. However, the nature of emergency service work means that there will be many critical incidents that could potentially be psychologically or morally injurious. Early intervention with defusing or debriefing can be skillfully provided by trained resilience coaches who have themselves dealt with similar incidents and are trained to recognize the potentially maladaptive thinking patterns that can lead to increased and prolonged distress. This can be done in a group setting, but in some instances, it may be necessary to offer the debriefing in a one-on-one format.

The importance of restorative sleep after critical incidents must be stressed, and it is important to have physicians available who are capable of prescribing sleep medications if necessary. The physicians may also order time off work as indicated in order to prevent long term absences later. Accommodated positions may be necessary for a short term to allow members to recover from difficult calls. If there are disciplinary measures, professional conduct charges, criminal charges or investigations into operations, more psychological support, time off or accommodation may be needed.


Although implementing all the cultural changes, building resilient teams and providing effective early intervention strategies will go a long way to preventing lasting psychological injury and prolonged absences from work, there will be times when specialized, more definitive care is indicated.

Addiction to drugs and/or alcohol presents a special situation, where a secure, residential facility should be considered. Ideally, there would be a facility available where only first responders attend. In this way, the addiction and any psychological injuries sustained from service can be addressed simultaneously, and participants can feel free to talk about any work-related traumas.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Moral injury can cause significant disability, and when it becomes apparent that short term absence or accommodation is not beneficial, then a more intense program should be considered. We have found that our six day Project Trauma Support residential experiential program offered at the right time can be effective in either keeping a member operational or helping them return to work. Many times, the hurdle that needs to be overcome falls into the category of Moral Injury or Institutional (“Sanctuary”) Trauma, and our program specifically addresses these, as well as PTSD and other Operational Stress Injuries.

Day programming that offers group psychotherapy can be effective and can be combined with a residential program, either before or after.

Longer term in -patient hospitalizations should be reserved for members who are showing signs of severe psychiatric illness, or when there is a need for diagnostic clarity or optimization of the medication regimen.

In special circumstances, where there are refractory cases of PTSD, depression or suicidal ideation, it might make sense to consider some of the emerging therapies with ketamine or Psychedelic Assisted psychotherapy.


Return to work after absence, accommodation or more definitive treatment should be approached strategically with sensitivity to the potential psychologic impacts. Return to work is in effect exposure therapy itself. There should be the availability of resilience life coaches, kind and compassionate leaders, and support from colleagues and peers. There should be regular, ongoing one-on-one sessions with a trusted clinician who can monitor sleep, anxiety levels, effects of any medication, stress tolerance, adaptability, concentration and overall psychological and physical health. Peer support should be made available, preferably through collaboration between the professional association and the employer. Linking with outside agencies and members from other emergency services can often be beneficial. This provides additional supports and the validation that work in the emergency services extracts a toll on the very humanity of an individual. The training, instruments, weapons and uniforms may be different, but the psychological impacts are the same.

Winter Blues, Blahs or Buoys?

My friend just sent me a poster saying “January was a tough year, but we got through it!” We know that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or the “Winter Blues” is a real thing causing feelings of depression for many people.

Shorter days and cold and inclement weather make travel or even just putting the garbage out less enjoyable. People already battling mental health issues can certainly find the winter to be something akin to a long, lonely sentence. If you are struggling with PTSD or another Operational Stress injury, we know that the worst thing you can do is to isolate. Yet the lethargy and decreased mood that comes with SAD and the cold weather can easily drive you to do just that.

For those of you who are lucky enough to be snow birds and can escape to the south for the winter, good on you! For the rest of us that have to stay here and slog out another Canadian winter, here are some things to contemplate.

Nature, working with the physics and chemistry of life, constructs the seasons. Spring is the season of new growth and expansion, summer the season of vibrancy and brilliance, fall the season of reaping and storing, and winter the season of rest and submission. There are other cycles of life as well. A mighty oak grows with oxygen, sunlight and nutrients, but when its life cycle is over, it returns to the earth
Although it may look like things are at a standstill in the winter, there is actually much going on in preparation for the new growth season, which is only (How many weeks away? What happened to the groundhog this year, anyone know?) The apparent dormancy we see over the winter in nature is much more than a period of suspended animation. Seeds in the ground are still metabolizing, but at a slower rate. After a period of time, hormones trigger initiation of new growth, which can happen if the conditions are favourable (ie enough water around). And this time of year, all the gardeners are starting to plant seeds indoors, looking forwards to spring.

As many of you have probably figured out, we are always either growing and expanding or retreating ourselves. We are never staying at a standstill. You can feel like you are getting into better physical shape or deconditioning. You can be learning new skills and keeping up in your field, or falling behind. You can be improving mentally, or isolating more and becoming more anxious and despondent. If you pay attention to your thoughts and energy levels and where you place them, you may become more aware of what is actually going on with you.

When you are expanding, you feel excited, optimistic and energized. You feel focussed and driven. Creative ideas abound. When you are in a contracting, retreating state, you feel listless and more depressed and anxious. You may sleep too much or not enough. You feel hopeless and too often you will tend to use your thoughts and the energies you have to mentally punish yourself.

But what if you use this quiet winter time like seeds underground, to build yourself up to get ready to spring? What if you put your energies into winter sports to improve physical fitness and the time you invest in your family? What if you go into hibernation to do some serious research on courses you might want to take, projects you might want to tackle, a new business you might want to look into?
And if you are seriously in a place where you are finding yourself spiralling down, gather your energy to pull yourself up. Call your doctor and ask for an extra appointment to talk about how you are feeling and what you can do about it. Or read some good books on improving your mental state.

Call a friend and go for coffee. Go to a peer support group. Maybe there are others who are also struggling and could use your support. Maybe feeling compassion and caring for others is just the distraction and boost you need.

Winter is a great time to meditate on what is truly important. It is a time to nurture yourself and your loved ones. It is a time to be optimistic about the future and to plant those spring seeds.