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Families Count 2024: new resource on family structure now available

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Families Count 2024 is now available

November 24, 2022

Spouse or Significant Other Wellbeing Course: Supporting Public Safety Personnel Families

A profile of a wellbeing course for the spouses or significant others of PSP.

November 24, 2022

Public Safety Personnel (PSP) do incredibly important work in ensuring the safety and security of Canadians, but these careers can affect their wellbeing. PSP are diverse, encompassing many professions, such as first responders (paramedics, firefighters, police), correctional workers, search and rescue personnel, and more. What their work often shares, however, is frequent exposure to stress and trauma, in addition to complex, non-standard working hours and other occupational stressors (e.g., public scrutiny). What has become increasingly clear is that this work doesn’t just affect their own wellbeing but that of their families as well.

To address this concern, a group of Canadian researchers created the Spouse or Significant Other (SSO) Wellbeing Course, a free, evidence-based online program tailored to support the mental health and wellbeing of the spouses or significant others of PSP.

“The SSO course grew out of the work our team had been doing through PSPNET, a clinical research unit at the University of Regina that provides and conducts research on Internet-delivered cognitive behaviour therapy to people working in the public safety sector,” explains Heather Hadjistavropoulos, PhD, who is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Regina and the PSPNET Principal Investigator.

This program is available across Canada, with additional services such as phone- or Internet-based therapist support provided in five provinces. Clients are provided with materials similar to those shared in face-to-face cognitive behavioural therapy sessions that are made available online in the form of a course. Each week, clients are provided with new lessons and are taught a variety of strategies for managing mental health problems they may be experiencing.

“Like a lot of cognitive behavioural therapy, the material focuses on helping people by encouraging them to examine their thoughts, and look for alternative thoughts or more helpful ways of thinking that can help them to get unstuck,” explains Hadjistavropoulos. “It explores clients’ behaviours, identifying those that might not be helpful and then how to tackle them. It also provides help on how to manage physical symptoms that can come with mental health problems. They’re then encouraged to do some homework and apply it to their lives.”

In running this course and hearing from clients, Hadjistavropoulos says that she and her colleagues soon realized that PSP were often more worried about their loved ones than themselves. “As we continued to offer this course and hear from PSP, we learned that a commonly expressed concern was about the impact of their careers on their spouses or significant others and on the wellbeing of their families generally.” Many felt that the course would be beneficial to their spouses or partners, which led the PSPNET team to expand their program. This was made possible with funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“We know from the literature that PSP families live with and are exposed to things that many others aren’t, and PSP have talked about the double stresses of work and of trying to protect their families from its effects,” says Hadjistavropoulos. To aid with tailoring, the team at PSPNET collaborated with  Heidi Cramm, PhD, and the Family Matters Research Group, and Natalie Reed, PhD, from the Child Trauma Research Centre, who are leading the development of additional resources and strategies for PSP families, which will soon be available on a PSPNET Families website.

The SSO course is offered to anyone aged 18 or older living in Canada who is currently or formerly a spouse or significant other of a past or current career or volunteer PSP and is seeking help with a variety of mental health concerns, such as low mood, depression, worry, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress injuries. The course is not recommended for individuals reporting problems with psychosis, mania, or severe substance use, as these issues are not addressed in the course. The SSO course is self-guided, so therapist support is not provided but, by spending one to three hours each week on the eight-week course, clients receive free education and guidance on simple techniques that can help them manage many mental health concerns. In addition, a therapist-moderated discussion forum offers participants the opportunity to interact with a therapist.

Hadjistavropoulos is quick to point out that the SSO course is now available, but that it is still in an exploratory phase and that they are still learning about its helpfulness, who is interested in it, and what ideas people might have on how to strengthen the course. Research is still being done on the SSO course. Before enrolling, during the course, and again at eight weeks after enrolling, clients are asked to complete course evaluation questionnaires and may also be invited to participate in a phone or Zoom interview.

“At its heart, it’s really about increasing access to cognitive behavioural therapy by providing it online in a way that’s convenient for clients, so we’re still very much seeking feedback to help guide its further development.”

If you or anyone you know are a current or former spouse or significant other of a past or current Public Safety Personnel, and are interested in taking this course or in learning more, download the SSO Course flyer or visit the PSPNET website. Participation is confidential.