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The Can-Am Games: Shining a Light on Mental Health.

Guest speaker, Ron DiFrancesco was leading a fast-paced trading culture in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Author: Kim Willis
Photographer: CMHA Windsor/ Essex
5 months ago
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He never saw the plane before it hit the North tower. He was on his way to the elevator when the second plane hit.  Along with many others above the crash zone he was left completely helpless. He was the last man to make it out of the South tower alive and has experienced deep personal pain and still struggles with PTSD.  

DiFrancesco is the guest speaker at the 2022 CanAm Police Fire Games Chiefs Luncheon on July 27 at Caesars Windsor, hosted by Canadian Mental Health Association, Windsor-Essex County (CMHA-WECB)

In 2018 Windsor-Essex received the exciting news that it would host the 2022 CanAm Police Fire Games. This prestigious event will bring over 400 first responders and their families to Windsor from July 25 to 31 to participate in over 40 events.

CMHA-WECB will have a presence throughout the games including the Chief’s Luncheon and the Opening Ceremonies

The luncheon promises to be a powerful event featuring Ron DiFrancesco, the last survivor from the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City on that fateful day of September 11, 2001. Ron will share his incredible story of personal pain, his struggle with PTSD and how he has managed to survive and thrive.

To purchase tickets to the Chiefs Luncheon visit, windsoressex.cmha.ca/events/chiefs-luncheon

“It is a true honour to have been selected as the charity partner for the CanAm Police Fire Games,” said Dr. Sonja Grbevski, CEO, CMHA-WECB. “Although we have made great strides in addressing the stigma associated with mental health, it continues to be more prevalent in professions such as first responders. Sadly, it can still be associated as a weakness. Fortunately, events like the games provide another opportunity to normalize the conversation.”

The event on its own is an incredible honour, however the organizing committee wanted to leverage the event and create a lasting legacy in Windsor-Essex. The decision was made to select the Canadian Mental Health Association, Windsor-Essex County Branch (CMHA-WECB) as a charity partner of the games to highlight the importance of mental health and address stigma.

Over the last four years the importance of mental health has been highlighted on several occasions in events and activities leading up to the games.

In 2018 a First Responders Coalition was established in Windsor-Essex with representation from all police, fire, hospitals, EMS, the Windsor Essex County Health Unit, Family Services Windsor-Essex, CMHA-WECB and other community partners. The goal was quite simple, to establish strengthened peer support programs for our first responders.

“We knew that our staff was struggling with stress, anxiety, depression and PTSD and while we have employee assistance programs there is still stigma and distrust about accessing these services. Based on the culture of first responders we know that peer support is often the best way to provide supports,” said Bruce Krauter, Chief at Essex Windsor EMS.

While all agencies were in support of the peer support concept, they were all at various stages in development of peer support programs. A successful grant from the Ministry of Labour allowed for the standardization of peer support programs across agencies. In addition, there have been additional outcomes from the Coalition including a website dedicated to supporting the mental health of first responders and families (www.wehelpfirst.ca), E-Quine therapy is now available for first responders, curriculum development in partnership with St. Clair College and the University of Windsor was completed to ensure the mental health aspect of these professions is included and more.

Today all Windsor-Essex first responders have been trained in Road 2 Mental Readiness (R2MR), over 150 have been trained in ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training), and many have completed peer support mental health training that includes early intervention, assessment, treatment, education and program development for emergency services and high trauma sectors.

“In my opinion strong peer support is one of the most crucial outlets first responders can have at their fingertips. No one other than a first responder will know exactly what you’re going through. When you reach out to one another you tend not to hold back your feelings. You understand each other, most often times better than your spouses, friends or even family. At the end of the day you want to be able to lean on your peers so that you can be yourself and feel understood. A close second to taking care of you is having the training resources to healthy living – both mind and body,” said Jeremy Soulliere, Windsor Firefighter.

 Although the grant funding has ended, there is still much to do, especially after the mental toll that the pandemic has had on our frontline workers. The reality is that by the nature of their profession, first responders have higher rates of suicide, PTSD, and trauma. We also know that for decades these individuals were not encouraged to share their feelings as it was a sign of weakness.

“It takes years to break down barriers, but inaction is not an option,” said Krauter. “Over the last several years we have made pointed efforts to normalize mental health as health and provide outlets for our employees to reach out when they are struggling. We have made significant progress, but there is still much work to be done.”

To that end, fundraising efforts have continued to ensure that this important work can continue. 

The CanAm Games have provided a platform to highlight the importance of the mental health of our first responders and raise funds to support ongoing initiatives. The Chiefs luncheon is a fundraiser in support of these efforts. There will also be other opportunities to support CMHA-WECB throughout the games.

When it comes to the mental health of first-responders, there are many innovative possibilities on the horizon. These tailor-made solutions are changing a long-established culture of stoicism into one of collegial support.

The CanAm Games in conjunction with CMHA-WECB are meant to put mental health front and centre to support our First Responders and also to bring together community.

911 survivor Ron DiFrancesco credits the  support of his family and community, and his daily focus on mindfulness, gratefulness and giving back for not only surviving but thriving. 

To find out more information about the CanAm Police Fire Games visit, www.windsor2022.ca

Statistics and Facts

  • 2% of Canadians will experience PTSD in their lifetime (Van Amerigen, 2008)
  • First responders experience PTSD 2 times the rate of the average population
  • An estimated 22% of all paramedics will develop PTSD (Drewitz-Chesney, 2012)
  • 16 active and 15 retired RCMP officers died by suicide between 2006 and 2014
  • Between April and December 2014, 27 first responders died by suicide
  • In January, 2015 4 first responders died by suicide (Tema Conter, 2015)
  • Up to 22% of all paramedics will develop PTSD

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