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Paramedic program at MHC focuses on mental health for first responders

paramedic student and coordinator from PAWS posing with facility dog
April 9, 2019

People’s lives often depend on the quick reaction and competent care of paramedics. For first responders, the incidents they are subjected to can vary from automobile accidents and heart attacks to slips and falls, emphasizing the need to take care of their mental health and wellbeing.

For Mandy Lehr, instructor in the paramedic program at Medicine Hat College (MHC), preparing her students to identify the symptoms in themselves, and their patients, while also developing healthy coping skills is important.

“We recently created a class around mental health for first responders, as we are seeing the cases of post-traumatic stress in these individuals increase. It’s important to prepare our students with the necessary coping skills, while helping reduce the stigma around mental health disorders such as PTSD.”

As part of the course, students learn about some of the supports available to them. One of the resources they have access to, as professionals, is the Psychological Awareness and Wellness Support (PAWS) program through Alberta Health Services (AHS).

Lehr recently invited Erica Olson, program coordinator, and Delray, an accredited facility dog from PAWS, into the classroom to educate her students on this initiative.

The program uses a trauma-informed approach which focuses on emotional and psychological safety. Delray, a black lab, is trained specifically in this work.

According to Olson, studies show that working with a canine can enhance the results of treatment.  

 “Engaging with a facility dog has benefits to the human and the dog. Both experience an increase in stress reducing hormones, lowered pulse and blood pressure. This can be helpful when providing peer support to staff that are experiencing the effects of chronic or acute stress as a result of EMS work.”

When the pair are not responding to on-site calls, they are providing education to organizations throughout Alberta to help decrease stigma and raise awareness of the resources available to employees experiencing psychological injury.

“It’s great to educate students, because the psychological injury factor can be greatly reduced with resiliency skills. The more students come out educated and prepared for the reality of this job, the less incidents of injury they have in the workforce.”

For Jack Tuza, paramedic student at MHC, the presentation taught him about the scientific connection between animals and humans.

“I used to have a dog so I know that you can just play off of each other’s emotions, but I never actually thought about it scientifically. It’s really interesting that once you consider the theories, impact on our neurons and the research, there is proof that animals are a lot more important than we think. They’re not just a pet, they are a companion.”

Tuza mentions that through the class he has learned many skills.

“These conversations are all part of reducing the stigma. We need to recognize that different situations and how they affect each individual may vary. It’s about understanding that what’s going to impact one person, may not affect another.”

For first-responders, Lehr adds that being mindful and taking breaks to work on their wellness is not just protecting their mental health but also longevity in their career.

For more information on MHC’s paramedic program, visit

If you are interested in learning about the Psychological Awareness and Wellness Support program, visit or check out their Facebook page.