For Canadian athletes and sports fans, having Whistler, BC named as the host of the 2010 Winter Olympics was a proud and exciting moment.
For Brian Guthrie, PhD, it offered an intriguing research idea.
Guthrie is an associate professor in Mount Royal’s Department of Social Work and Disability Studies. He is also a member of Health Canada’s Psycho-Social Emergency Responder Team (PSERT), a national team of senior trauma counsellors who help with the mental health needs of federal employees involved in emergencies such as terrorism or a natural disaster.
“There’s been a lot of research done on the psychological impacts on professionals who do trauma work — police, firefighters, army — and work on lessons learned out of major disasters like Katrina, but there have been very few studies done on the composition of a disaster mental health team,” Guthrie says.
Canada ahead of the curve
“Canada is one of the few countries that has trained and prepared a team to respond to potential emergencies. An understanding of the evolution of this team, its preparedness and response to a major global event like the Olympics would help in understanding the functioning, needs and resources needed to develop additional teams.”
The PSERT was created in 2001, and the team of mental health professionals has been training and working together ever since, responding to incidents such as the Kelowna fires in 2003 and being on call during events like the G8 Summit in Kananaskis.
“There is a wealth of information contained within this small group of people, so I saw the Olympics as an opportunity to have a record of the experience of how they came together, why they stay together and their understanding of the work that they do.”
For his project, Guthrie received funding from Mount Royal’s Office of Research and permission from Health Canada to approach the PSERT members.
An Olympic opportunity
“There was lots of interest in my little idea and that was helpful in me getting this project off the ground,” Guthrie says. “The Olympics are huge, and they were going to be in our own backyard. There is an underlying sense of vulnerability since 9/11, and the Olympics are considered a primary target.”
MRU prepares its own emergency response plan
In North America, many organizations have adopted a critical incident stress management model for responding to man-made or natural disasters.
Mount Royal University is currently updating our Emergency Response Plan and moving to an Incident Command System based on this model.
“A university-wide committee has been working with a consultant during the past year to develop the plan,” says Jane O’Connor, manager of Governance and Executive Operations. “It is anticipated that the plan will be completed this fall.”
O’Connor says a procedure manual for the university community has also been developed, and plans are in place to update the campus community on Mount Royal’s preparations for responding to a crisis.
For the 18 PSERT members who volunteered to participate in the research, the intriguing aspect was the qualitative methodology of the research.
“The qualitative methodology is they read their own transcripts and validate the truth of what they said or want to change. Many of them were quite surprised at some of their own thoughts on the work that they do, once they had an opportunity to speak them out loud,” Guthrie says. “So they’re quite interested in what themes will develop.”
Constraint, participation and development
Guthrie’s questions to team members focused on three areas: constraint, participation and development.
“I am looking at why someone who could work anywhere for significant monetary remuneration wants to devote all of the training time – sometimes twice a year – to the PSERT team," Guthrie says. “That participation means that they are taken away from their private practices or from the missions that they’re doing with Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross or the UN. That intrigued me, and that intrigued them as well.
“The constraints are that it’s a small team in a political environment where funding is constrained, so it’s really about resources. It will be interesting to see what they feel they need in order to attend to the psychological well-being of Canadians in the field.”
Guthrie is currently working through the results of his research and hopes to publish in a disaster counselling journal. He also hopes his work will help make psychological first aid as important as physical first aid in the event of a disaster.
“It should be an integral part of an organization’s disaster response and therefore, if these team members are saying these are the constraints that we have; these are the resources that we need; this is what we think will aid our development; then — as naive as it is — my hope would be that the decision-makers who sign the cheque really look at that,” he says.
“If a team like PSERT has the training it needs and the resources it needs, then they become effective in the field and the psychological damage to individuals is minimized,” Guthrie explains.
“This is so important because the potential psychological consequence of being a victim of a disaster is post-traumatic stress disorder. If that can be mediated at the early stages of the critical incident or the disaster, then fewer victims are going to be incapacitated.”
— Nancy Cope, Oct. 7, 2010