First responder tackles mental health at work

Danielle Dube knows what it’s like to be a hero. As a former professional hockey goaltender, she’s saved her team more times than she can count. Today, as a firefighter in Richmond, B.C., she protects lives and property on a daily basis. Having completed the First Responders Trauma Prevention and Recovery Certificate program, Danielle has now found a new way to be a hero: by supporting her own colleagues in caring for their mental health on the job.

Danielle says her ultimate goal is to complete her master’s degree and become a registered clinical counsellor who specializes in working with first responders. While waiting to start graduate studies, she signed up for the SFU program as a way to ease back into school mode.

“I also wanted to gain a better understanding of the needs and supports offered to other first responders outside of the firefighting community,” she recalls.

The program not only gave Danielle a wider view of mental health issues amongst all first responders, but it also opened her eyes to the need for self-care.

“I got so much more out of the program than I thought I would,” she says. “You hear and see a lot of things in this work, and I have to remember to look after myself and practise the tools that I’m teaching to others.”

Danielle hadn’t always intended to be a firefighter or a counsellor. She began her hockey career straight out of high school and didn’t begin firefighter training until her thirties. When an invitation to coach at UBC turned into an opportunity to play for the varsity team, Danielle found herself returning to school while continuing to juggle firehall shifts with raising her two children. “I came out with an undergrad degree in psychology—at age 40,” she laughs. 

Recognizing Danielle’s new skills, the firefighters union asked for her help in developing a peer support program and other mental health initiatives. “That’s when I really saw how much need was out there for this support,” she recalls. “That inspired me to want to do more of this work.”

With the introduction of peer support, Danielle says she’s beginning to see positive signs that the workplace culture is starting to change: “The more people learn about mental health, the more they will reach out.

“When we’re out doing our job now and it wasn’t a good call, or if it triggered something, then we’re more willing to talk about it in the group or to reach out individually. We can say, ‘Wow, that was a bad one for me.’ It’s really nice to see that transition.”

Having once balanced school with hockey, firefighting and parenting, Danielle clearly had no difficulty completing the online SFU program. Even so, she says, the flexibility of the program allows it to work for any schedule.

“It’s laid out in a way that’s easily doable for a working first responder,” she says. “It’s built for any learning style and can help anyone, whether they want to get information to support their organization or even to look after themselves.

“I’m really grateful for this program because I think it’s helping a lot of people.”

By Kim Mah