First Responder Q&A COVID-19 Resource

We have received questions which discussed internal, or administrative scenarios within an organization that due to the unique nature of, we are unable to provide answers to. Please accept this reminder that this service aims to provide general answers and should not be used as a clinical service.

Countless studies have identified the impacts of stress on decision-making, including consequences such as a higher likelihood of tunnel vision, impulsiveness, and poor consideration of potential negative outcomes, or, conversely, poor concentration, paralysis in making choices, and impaired memory. Sometimes, a bit of formal education and discussion about the impact of high levels of stress can start a conversation about the particular stresses that people are facing and about the coping strategies they may be using. Further, owning some of the stress (by, for example, talking about the additional challenges being faced as a supervisor and how your stress may be getting transferred to other staff) can invite others to open up about what they are experiencing. Additionally, talking about specific behaviours (or, more broadly, developing a workplace culture in which errors are viewed more as learning opportunities than as disciplinary concerns) rather than about individuals may foster better dialogue, having reduced a likely level of defensiveness.

Some stress can be a good thing, providing motivation, getting us out of bed in the morning, and prompting us to make some positive personal or professional changes. Too much stress leads to drop- offs in performance, to negative physiological and psychological changes, and to health consequences. Finding ways to effectively manage stress in the workplace and at home is an important personal responsibility.

For many people, the work environment provides an important social outlet: a chance to connect with colleagues and friends; to share news and plans; to feel as though one is part of the team pursuing particular goals. Working from home and connecting only by telephone or video-conference represents a major change and, for some, the loss of that social connection. The isolation and the change could be a trigger for the onset of depression.

While depression is officially defined on the basis of nine specific symptoms, an easier measure of depression looks at other changes in a person’s routines: Has previously decent sleep become disrupted or non-restorative? Has an exercise regime become much more sporadic? Has there been a loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyed? Has appetite shifted, contributing to weight gain through higher consumption of comfort foods or weight loss through disinterest? Are we seeing withdrawal, irritability, moodiness, problems with concentration, lapses in memory, fatigue, indecision? More alcohol being consumed? And, while not necessarily actively thinking about suicide, is there some passive ideation or vague commentary, such as, “I don’t really see the point anymore”?

The symptoms we may notice when connecting with our colleagues who are working from home may be obvious or may be subtle. When someone who is typically outgoing, happy to talk about the weekend, effusive and engaged, starts to become passive, lethargic, and disengaged, discreetly reaching out and asking some simple questions shows support and offers assistance. “You don’t seem yourself. Is something going on?” “Anything I can do to help?” “I’m really missing our time to talk about non-work stuff. Would you like to meet for a virtual coffee or beer?”

What’s missing in working from home is that personal connection. When signs or symptoms of depression begin to surface, finding ways to restore that connection, to build on relationships, to give support, finding ways to enhance and rebuild that connection becomes more important.

Anxiety often stems from two sources: an informational or cognitive component; and, an affective or emotional component. Providing accurate information such as the exceptionally high filtration rate of HEPA air cleaners used on passenger planes in Canada may provide reassurance, but we often override the value of science and statistics with anecdotes of rare occurrences. In short, telling people there’s nothing to worry about can actually increase their worry.

Instead, people can be encouraged to challenge their own assumptions and do their own research: ‘Thinking about the last time you flew, how did that work out?’ ‘And the time before that?’ ‘And the time before that?’ Or, you might ask people to play out the presumed problematic scenario: ‘If something did happen, what would be the likely outcome?’

For example, when a colleague says “The boss wants to see you”, what’s the first thing that goes through your head? For many people, the initial assumption is about getting in trouble for some presumed, recent mistake. In reality, what has been the history of getting called to the boss’s office? Likely, the history is sometimes positive, sometimes negative, and quite often neutral. Further, even if I did do something negative, the likely outcome is that I’ll be told to fix it. I will not lose my job; and, I will not be living in a box, down by the river.

Anxiety often stems from our tendency to catastrophize and play out a worst-case scenario. Taking a few seconds or minutes to look at our history and to consider realistic outcomes can often do a lot more to calm our fears than does a further recitation of some scientific fact.

Have questions relating to the mental health of first responders?

We invite you to ask us any general questions relating to mental health that you, a colleague or staff member, or your first responder organization may have. All questions will remain anonymous.

Please submit your question below, and we will work with Psychologist, Dr. Patrick Baillie to answer some of the common issues confronting first responders and provide a timely response. Questions and answers may be grouped into common themes and will be found on this page. 

 Please note this is not a clinical service, but a general resource for first responders.

This resource is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your health provider with any questions you may have regarding your mental health. If you are in distress, please contact your nearest distress centre. If it is an emergency, call 9-1-1 or go to your local emergency department.

Dr. Patrick Baillie is a forensic psychologist with Alberta Health Services and a lawyer who completed his articles with the late Honourable Gail Vickery, then-Chief Judge, Provincial Court of Alberta. Since 1995, he also has been a Consulting Psychologist with Calgary Police Services, Psychological Services Division. 
Patrick had written hundreds of pre-sentence assessments used by all levels of Courts in Alberta; in 2007, he was named as a member (and, later, Chair) of the Mental Health and the Law Advisory Committee of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC); and, he recently completed several book chapters, ranging from a first-person biography of his psychological mentor -- Dr. Bruce Ogilvie, the grandfather of applied sport psychology -- to a chapter on law and ethics in the practice of psychology, to a psychological autopsy of the wrongful conviction and prolonged incarceration of David Milgaard.  
In 2008, Patrick received the John G. Paterson Media Award from the Psychologists’ Association of Alberta for his contribution towards keeping the public informed about psychological knowledge via the media. In the months after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, he served as a volunteer psychologist with New York Police Department and, in 2011, he travelled to Haiti to provide psychological services after that country's devastating earthquake. He has appeared before Parliamentary Justice or National Security Committees on five occasions. In 2014, he received the John Service Member of the Year Award from the Canadian Psychological Association, in recognition of his various volunteer efforts to promote the field of psychology. From June 2017 to June 2018, he served as President of the Canadian Psychological Association.