Skip to content

Emotional first aid on offer

No one should have to face a life crisis alone, but not all of us know how to help. "That's what this course is going to teach," said Michael Swainson.

No one should have to face a life crisis alone, but not all of us know how to help.

“That’s what this course is going to teach,” said Michael Swainson, the instructor for an upcoming course at Yukon College, called Crisis Intervention and Peer Support.

“Most of the time, all we need is someone just to listen. Not give advice, but just say, ‘What’s going on?’”

Swainson worked as a paramedic for 21 years. During that time, he watched children and friends die.

Four years ago, when he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Like many first responders, he thought he was tough and wouldn’t need help.

“Well, guess what?” he said. “I was wrong.”

He calls his course “emotional first aid.” Had it been available to Swainson during his time of crisis, he believes he may not have been affected with PTSD.

During his recovery, Swainson visited San Diego to complete courses with the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation and became a certified instructor. Now he’s teaching what he learned.

It’s the first course of its kind in the territory, said Swainson.

Most people think of first responders such as the military, police, firemen, paramedics, corrections officers, and outpost nurses in the communities as being the most likely to develop critical incident or post-traumatic stress.

But they are not the only people who experience extreme stress. Losing a job, losing a loved one, marital breakups and accidents also cause emotional trauma.

RCMP officers, students and First Nation residents could all find the course useful, said Swainson.

“Do the First Nations here in Yukon have a history of critical events, critical trauma? I think the answer to that question is an overwhelming yes,” he said.

“So, we could train First Nation people to be peers to other First Nation people.”

First responders have a process known as debriefing. “If something really horrific happens, they’ll come in and they’ll do a critical incident stress debriefing,” said Swainson.

“It used to be all about the debriefing. The critical incident stress debriefing is now one of seven options you have in critical incident stress management. So you don’t have to leap to the debriefing.”

Imagine that a young man has been killed in a horrific motorcycle accident. The paramedics who arrive include two who are married with no children, one who is unmarried with no kids, and one who is married with a son.

During the debriefing, the paramedic who is a father starts sobbing uncontrollably. The other three are left wondering, “Why is this so tough on him?”

“When they have kids they’ll understand, but until then they won’t get it,” said Swainson “So to have me go through a debriefing with my peers when I am taking it hugely personal and they’re not, that whole debriefing is going to be traumatic for me.

“Would I be better served by doing something like a one-on-one intervention? Absolutely.”

First responders in Whitehorse have access to an employee assistance program, counselors and psychologists. Those in the communities aren’t so lucky.

But peers can help with interventions. A person suffering stress is more likely to emotionally connect with someone with a similar background and experiences.

He doesn’t see this program as the be-all and end-all for dealing with critical stress.

“I’m not saying don’t go see someone who is a counsellor or don’t go see a psychologist if that’s what you need to do, but as a first step maybe talking to a peer could really help you, providing the peer is trained in the stuff,” he said.

But the course’s training can help stop emotional “bleeding.”

Swainson has participated in over 16 of these types of interventions and at the end of each one made a referral to a counsellor or psychologist.

The City of Toronto’s ambulance service uses this type of one-on-one intervention with its peer support program, headed by psychologist Dr. Lori Gray, who was a classmate in one of the classes that Swainson took.

“In the first year that Dr. Lori Gray was working, claims for post-traumatic stress dropped over 40 per cent,” said Swainson.

No previous experience is required for the course. You do not have to be a first responder.

“This is for any lay person who wants to help somebody in a crisis,” he said. “If you are a human being and you care about other people, you meet the criteria to enter the class.”

The course takes place June 14 and 15. It’s part of Yukon College’s school of continuing education and training.