CALGARY -- Research shows as many as one-third of first responders — paramedics, police officers and firefighters — will experience post-traumatic stress as a result of performing their job duties. And for various reasons, many don't seek out professional help.

A team of researchers at the University of Calgary is now working to change that by developing family-based supports

"There are a number of reasons these men and women may not seek out assistance — perceived social stigma, workplace culture, or fear of a reduction in work responsibilities or job loss, among them," said Dr. Kelly Schwartz, principal investigator associate professor at the Werklund School of Education.

"We know that (public safety personnel) members actually prefer to seek out informal support from spouses over more formal avenues of support."

During conversations with first responders and their families while developing the study, researchers realized most existing mental health programs don't involve relatives, so they decided to do something about that.

Schwartz’s team is now enlisting first responders for an eight-week, Before Operational Stress (BOS) program.

Designed for first responders BOS is a group-based, proactive psychological intervention program designed to increase self-awareness and encourage authentic, healthy relationships.

"We hypothesize that (first responders) who participate in BOS will demonstrate improved psychosocial and physiological functioning, as will family members who participate," said Schwartz.

"In six and 12-month follow-ups, we hope to see evidence of (first responder) members experiencing greater physical and relational health and less mental health problems.”

The study was developed before the COVID-19 pandemic, but Schwartz says it now has added relevance as first responders are experiencing added stress of dealing with potentially infected people.

"It is increasingly likely that the second wave of the pandemic may not be physical illness but rather the impact on first responders’ mental health. The operational stress will inevitably be carried by the first responder into the home," said Schwartz.

"Our intervention will hopefully strengthen the resiliency of the first responder through these family members so that they can continue to serve in their important public safety occupation."

The researchers will be recruiting firefighters, paramedics and police officers and their families in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario for the study.

To participate, PSP members must currently be employed full-time (including volunteer firefighters), not currently be on sick or disability leave, have been employed for 12 months or more, and have a family member (spouse/partner or youth between 11 and 17 years of age) who lives with them.

Additional details can be found online.