Michael Swainson had been working as a paramedic for more than two decades when the trauma caught up to him.
After 21 years, the Yukoner was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He headed south in search of help, to a California treatment centre designed specifically for first responders.
“When I left there, I thought, you know what, there’s an opportunity here for me, having gone through PTSD, to help other first responders who have or will go through PTSD,” he said.
Swainson returned to the centre twice more, became a peer support worker, and eventually started training with the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. Today, he teaches crisis intervention courses through Yukon College. This fall, he also brought his program to a group of Yukon high school students for the first time.
Nicole Cross, a teacher at Porter Creek Secondary School, is responsible for a new elective course called Peer Mentorship and Community Leadership in Action. When she put together the semester-long course program for the first time, she built an adapted version of Swainson’s unit on individual crisis intervention and peer support into the curriculum.
Normally, Swainson teaches his course to adults in two full days. At Porter Creek, he taught the students in bite-sized portions, two afternoons a week for four weeks. He also adapted his sessions to focus on teen-specific crises. “When I went out there to teach these guys, I went out there before I started the class and I said, ‘What are the types of crisis that teenagers go through?’ Number one was bullying.” Other scenarios that the class worked through included the death of a parent or loved one, or a parental divorce.
Cross and others had observed their students’ reactions to deaths in the community over the past few years. They were also aware that with the ubiquity of social media and cellphones, bullying was now inescapable. The idea behind bringing in Swainson was to teach the students to offer a support network to their peers - since teenagers, in particular, might be less likely to reach out to adults when they are in crisis. The students were taught that while they might not have any relevant life experience - they might not, for instance, have lost a parent themselves - they can create a safe space for their friends, and be there to listen.
“You’re not going to have the answers,” said Cross. “But you can be the ears.” Or as student Cara Schamber put it, “We’re just there to stop the bleeding, not fix the problem.”
The course was open to students from Grades 9 through 12. Twelve signed up, and they were enthusiastic about Swainson’s crisis intervention unit.
“We just gained the knowledge to be the people to talk to if someone’s in crisis,” said student Reuben Wurtak, a Grade 11 basketball player. “We’re just there to show them that it’s OK to feel the way they are ... This, to me, feels like one of the best things I’ve accomplished.” He added that he’s been showing off his crisis intervention certificate to his friends.
“I’m kind of a team leader kind of guy,” said Wurtak when asked why he signed up for the course. “I like to be a leader. It’s just a chance to upgrade my leadership skills.” He also thinks the course could be valuable for self-care, not just supporting his peers. “You know what to expect,” he said. “If people want to become doctors, now they can take care of themselves” while working with others in crisis.
Schamber, also in Grade 11, hopes to go into social work as a career; the new course seemed like a good fit. “I actually feel like I learned a lot in this class,” she said. “It was a good course for anybody to take, because at any point in your life you could run into someone who’s having a crisis.”
Student Natassja Scott thought the role-playing and teen-specific scenarios were “crucial” to the course. “It was all really relevant to us,” agreed another classmate, Teah Dickson.
Like her students, Cross was pleased with the results of the unit. “They did a good job,” she said. “It required them to step out of their box.” Some of the students wound up sharing their own stories of crisis during the role-playing, she added.
Assuming there is sufficient interest from a new crop of students, Cross’ semester-long course should go ahead again next fall. She also thinks that Swainson’s four-week unit, which totals about 15 hours of class time, could be a good fit in a variety of course offerings at other schools.
Swainson hopes his teaching stays with the students well beyond their years at Porter Creek. “You’re not going to be in high school forever,” he said, “and the skills that I’m going to teach you, hopefully you can take them to your last breath.”