Blue Line


January 29, 2016  By Larry White

It has become evident in recent years that Canada’s first responders need support. The reports that 32 first responders and 12 military members died by suicide in 2015 alone. Many others battle the challenges of mental illness arising from ongoing job trauma.

First responders, emergency workers and communicators act selflessly, often putting their own lives on the line to protect others. It’s time for Canadians to step up and offer some help to those who help others.

Simon Fraser University (SFU), in partnership with Tema, has worked behind the scenes for the past two years in order to do just that. With guidance from a national steering committee representing a broad cross-section of the first response community, SFU is the first Canadian university to have a program developed by and designed for first responders – the certificate program.

Available part-time and online, the program explores the impact of trauma from various dimensions as it applies to both front line emergency responders and communicators.


“There is a national mental health crisis among first responders and military personnel,” says former paramedic Vince Savoia, Tema founder and executive director. “One of the best ways to respond to a crisis is to give these brave men and women the specialized knowledge and skills they need to mitigate the emotional toll of their work. This program is the first in Canada to provide ready access to learning that is critical to the mental well being of those who are frequently exposed to suffering and tragedy.”

Taught by active and retired first responders and other professionals, participants gain a clear understanding of the principals of wellness and good mental health. They also learn how to recognize and address the onset of mental health issues specific to their profession and be proactive in trying to mitigate the impacts of trauma in advance of, during and following a crisis situation.

Participants finish the program with a personal resilience ‘toolkit’ from which they can draw to better prepare and support themselves when facing instances of vicarious trauma.

Designed to meet the needs of working professionals, the program is available fully online. Learning online does not mean learning in isolation. In fact, SFU, Tema and the program development team have been working to ensure that participants can interact and share experiences, ideas and expertise.

It’s possible that discussing course content and sharing experiences may trigger a reaction to traumatic events from the past. In order to support students in such instances, SFU has actively been working with an external service provider to offer mental health support 24/7. The program is likely to become one of the first of its kind to incorporate an employee assistance program type support structure for participants, accessible directly from within the program.

In developing program content, SFU invited first responders to a discussion during Tema’s Common Threads Symposium in February 2016 and reached out electronically to dozens of first responders across Canada. The feedback gained from these outreach activities was critical in helping to ensure that the program met the perceived needs of first responders themselves. In fact, one anonymous electronic respondent shared a personal observation: “Simply, I am grateful. This is an answer to personal prayers.”

“We structured the program to be pragmatic and collaborative,” adds Savoia. “Participants will not only benefit personally, but they will also acquire leadership skills to support their colleagues and their organizations as a whole.”

SFU and Tema also recognize that training in the early identification of mental health problems, promotion of mental wellness and prevention of mental illness and suicide is a critical strategy in helping to mitigate the cost of mental illness to the Canadian economy.

Visit to learn more about the program.


Larry White ( has worked in post-secondary education for more than 17 years and is currently the Director of Career and Professional Programs in Continuing Studies at Simon Fraser University.

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