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First Responder Program

We have psychologists and therapists with specialized training in the treatment of PTSD and other conditions related to trauma. We work with both uniformed and non-uniformed first responders using a trauma-informed model to help individuals build resilience, cope with symptoms and stressors, and foster post-traumatic growth.

September 2024

Why a First Responder Program?

While anyone can develop PTSD, it has been found that “rates of PTSD are higher among veterans and others whose vocation increases the risk of traumatic exposure, e.g. police, firefighters, emergency medical personnel” (American Psychological Association, 2013). While a posttraumatic stress injury may be inevitable, PTSD may be preventable. Our program is geared towards helping first responders through providing both individual therapy and group therapy.

Fees may be covered under WSIB. View our Fees page for more details.

services offered in our First Responder Program


Baseline Assessment

Individual therapy (one-on-one)

Critical Incidence Response

Prevention Skills (OPTiMA)

Still not sure what service you need? Reach out to talk with us.

Tips for First Responders

Trauma Assessment - Clinical Assessment and diagnosis of PTSD

According to the National Center for PTSD, approximately 7 or 8 out of 100 individuals will experience PTSD at some point in their lifetime. While people will experience a range of emotions after trauma, a PTSD diagnosis is characterized by a series of symptoms following exposure to a traumatic event, including intrusive memories or dreams of the event, intense distress when exposed to reminders of the event, and avoidance of internal (memories) and external (places, activities, etc.) reminders of the event. Those with PTSD often experience feelings of anger, guilt, or fear, and over time report problems with concentration, sleep, and within interpersonal relationships.

Trauma related disorders

You don’t need to be diagnosed with PTSD to benefit from support. The list below includes other challenges that are common for first responders.

Click on a term below to view more details about it.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Uniformed and non-uniformed first responders are prone to experiencing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

For a diagnosis of PTSD to be given, a person needs to have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, or have heard about a trauma that has happened to a close family member or friend. In addition, the person “relives” the traumatic experience, by having distressing memories of the event, recurrent nightmares or flashbacks. The person might engage in avoidance of places or people that remind him or her of the event. Additionally, individuals may experience a change in their mood, concentration, and sleep. Some individuals report feeling more “jumpy” and being more hypervigilant of their surroundings.

If you have experienced or witnessed a life-threatening event that caused intense fear, helplessness, or horror, feel free to take our confidential and free Posttraumatic Stress Disorder screening tool.

Primary Trauma

For first responders there are two kinds of primary trauma: From our personal life (eg. childhood, war, accidents) or caused by work related exposure (eg. seeing human suffering, witnessing repeated injustices). Challenges arise when we have not had the opportunity to engage in our own mental and personal growth to foster resilience and adopt new coping skills. Caring for one’s own mental and emotional health is remarkably important in this line of work, when encountering human distress is common and often expected. Being unaware of the ways our trauma history is impacting our work negatively can become destructive and make us more vulnerable to vicarious trauma when working with other traumatized people.

Secondary Trauma

Secondary trauma results from a secondary exposure to trauma such as listening to someone re-telling their trauma, debriefing colleagues, reading case files, sitting in court hearing graphic testimony, or watching vivid videos. This can lead to PTSD-like symptoms such as nightmares or intrusive thoughts about the traumatic event, avoidance, tension, irritability, insomnia, and emotional numbing. When someone experiences secondary trauma at work, they may be at a higher risk of experiencing sanctuary trauma as well.

Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma refers to a profound shift in the way that we see the world after repeated exposure to traumatic material. It describes the cumulative process of either experiencing or hearing about stressful events – over time, these experiences alter our beliefs/worldview. We may become increasingly numbed, or feel overwhelmed by intrusive images that replay in our minds. Vicarious trauma can occur following a single secondary trauma event or multiple Secondary trauma events.

Sanctuary Trauma

Sanctuary trauma is what occurs when a person who has suffered through a severe stressor goes to what they expect to be a supportive and protective environment, but instead encounters further stressors that worsen the issue. Sanctuary trauma can lead to disenfranchisement and moral injury.

Moral Injury

Moral injury often occurs after acting or witnessing behaviours that go against one’s moral beliefs. In stressful circumstances, individuals may find they “perpetrate, fail to prevent, or witness events that contradict deeply held moral beliefs and expectations” (National Centre for PTSD). First responders are at an increased risk for experiencing moral injury given the high exposure to distressing events. Individuals may experience feeling betrayed by leadership, or those in positions of power, and can experience disruptions in the psychological, social, physical, or spiritual realms of their life.

Operational Stress Injury

Uniformed and non-uniformed first responders and military members are prone to Operational Stress Injuries. Operational Stress Injury (OSI) is a non-medical term that refers to psychological difficulties that arise from traumatic experiences or prolonged high stress or fatigue, related to work as a military member or first responder. Although the term of OSI was originally conceptualized with the Canadian Armed Forces in mind, it is now recognized that similar challenges exist among front line emergency workers, including (but not limited to) police, firefighters, paramedics, correctional officers, and emergency dispatchers. If your job involves service as a first responder, consider taking our free and confidential OSI screening tool.

Baseline Assessment

You are at the start of your career as a first responder. How do you cope with stress? How will you react when you face your first trauma? How will you deal with the cumulative effect of traumatic exposure?

Baseline Assessments are typically conducted by trained professionals working with first responders. This type of assessment is appropriate for any first responders who are new to their careers. They can help identify an individual’s current strengths as well as any problem areas that could make the person particularly vulnerable for posttraumatic problems.

Typically, a Baseline Assessment entails a single session. If interested, individuals can then enroll in further Prevention Skills (OPTiMA) training, to reduce vulnerability to posttraumatic problems.

Individual therapy (one-on-one)

Therapy always starts with an assessment, to best identify treatment goals. Your therapist will use therapies that have been shown to be beneficial for PTSD and other stressor-related disorders. Below are some types of therapies you might have heard of, each having its distinct benefits. Your therapist will weave together a combination of approaches depending on your difficulties and corresponding treatment goals:

Cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT)

Re-evaluating thinking patterns and assumptions, and gradual exposure to reminders of the trauma, and the traumatic memories.

Cognitive processing therapy

Processing the trauma, challenging thoughts about the trauma, and identifying trauma themes.

Compassion-focussed therapy

Targets shame and self-criticism related to experiencing posttraumatic difficulties.

Eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR)

Re-processing traumatic distressing memories and changing the way the memory is stored in the brain.

Schema-based therapy

Rescripting traumatic mental images that have been producing strong emotional reactions.

Mindfulness-based therapy

Being aware of the present moment and being willing to experience thoughts and feeling without judgement.

Acceptance and commitment therapy

Being willing to accept feelings, reducing avoidance of pain, and living a meaningful life.

You can feel confident that your therapist will decide on what is the best type of treatment for you. All of these approaches are collaborative in nature, meaning that you will be working as a team with your therapist to move you towards your goals.

Critical Incidence Response

When a trauma occurs within an organization, all members of the community are affected. We hope that early intervention can prevent isolation that is so common after collective trauma. Investing in the mental health of first responders should be a priority for employers. This can improve personal, professional, and communal health. We provide the following services to organizations:

Psychoeducation & Prevention

Providing psychoeducational talks to help inform members about mental wellness. Topics such as how to recognize the signs of PTSD, developing resilience, and understanding the grief process is covered. This type of training within the occupational setting helps to enhance understanding of these topics, while also providing an onsite professional to encourage participation and answer questions.  

Urgent Assessment & Access to Service

Our psychologists and therapists (specifically trained to work with first responders) can provide an afternoon of onsite support, approximately 1-2 weeks after the time of a tragedy. While onsite, they can provide information on community resources and psychoeducational tools to help members process their experience. Members can meet with one of the therapists to complete a check-in, including completing psychological measures to assess the potential development of mental health concerns, and to provide a safe and confidential space to complete a “one-off” session. While the focus would be to provide a check-in for members to talk and process their experience, they would have the option of continued Individual Therapy (one-on-one) at Archways Centre for CBT.

Prevention Skills

Optimizing Performance in Trauma and Mental Achievement for First Responders (OPTiMA)

Nearly every day, first responders put themselves in harm’s way, risking their lives or witnessing their comrades' lives at risk. Their training helps to prepare them physically for the demands of their jobs. Our preventation skills helps us to prepare them mentally. This skills-based program is offered through individual or group sessions and covers education, skills, resiliency, and post-traumatic growth. These skills can be particularly helpful to new recruits who may wish to take measures now to prevent PTSD occurring later in their careers.

Overview of sessions

Session 1

Education on trauma in the world of a first responder.

Window of tolerance (WoT)

Session 2

Moving back into WoT.

Grounding, breathing, social engagement, physical activity

Session 3

Mindfulness and CBT Intro.

Skill: Mindfulness of the thought-mood relationship

Session 4

CBT continues.

Skill: Challenging beliefs and reducing avoidance

Session 5

Resilience and core beliefs

Session 6

Posttraumatic growth and relapse prevention

If you represent an organization which has a number of members who could benefit from OPTiMA, get in touch with us to design a program that meets your needs.

First Responder Program Staff:

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