Two free text messaging services have been launched to support the mental health of Alberta’s first responders.
Text4PTSI and Text4Well-being are designed to help emergency personnel cope positively with feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, disturbed sleep and suicidal thoughts, said project lead Vincent Agyapong, clinical professor of psychiatry and global mental health in the University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.
“During the pandemic and beyond, they deal with many traumatic situations, and a lot of them end up experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI) such as anxiety and depression.”
The new text services offer a private, convenient and immediate way of accessing help if a first responder is on a wait-list for services, already receiving face-to-face counselling or doesn’t feel comfortable using in-person supports, said Agyapong, who is also a member of the U of A’s Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute.
“Sometimes there’s stigma preventing them from reaching out for the help and support they need in a face-to-face way.”
Text4Well-being is intended to help build resilience and improve general well-being in first responders to help ensure they don’t develop PTSI, while TEXT4PTSI is designed to help reduce the symptoms for those who have already developed the condition.
The daily inspirational messages—accessed by texting either “WELLBEING” or “PTSI” to 1-844-990-4343—are meant to benefit users in a similar way to cognitive behavioural therapy sessions, where a therapist helps a patient evaluate and challenge negative thoughts, feelings and emotions.
“There are natural emotions people feel after experiencing a traumatic event, so the messages validate and normalize those feelings. We hope to restore people to a sense of normalcy about their feelings,” said Agyapong.
The texts encourage readers to acknowledge their feelings and use them in positive ways, with messages such as ‘Anger can be empowering when properly channelled.’
“That tells the person it’s OK to be angry, because it can give you the energy and motivation to get moving physically, mentally and emotionally. It turns it into something empowering for the individual.”
The expectation is to help reduce symptoms such as disturbed sleep, stress, anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide.
The texts were created by mental health clinicians at the Operational Stress Injury Clinic in Edmonton, Agyapong and his research team, and first responders themselves. All the texts, provided through the Canadian-based app ResilienceNHope, run daily for six months and come from the same phone number so they can be scrolled back and read repeatedly.
About a third of the texts include online links to mental health information and support services. “When they’re by themselves, people wouldn’t necessarily have the motivation to go look for these resources, so if we can deliver a link, they’re more likely to click on it and see what’s there for them,” Agyapong said.
The new texting services are part of a program that launched Text4Hope in March 2020 to help boost mental health during the pandemic. More than 54,000 people have signed up for Text4Hope, and studies found users reported lower levels of psychological distress after three months. Alberta Health Services and various health foundation partners plan to launch it in French, Mandarin, Punjabi and Arabic languages.
Agyapong said the easy accessibility is what makes these types of programs popular.
“The lack of requirement for people to do anything other than subscribe makes it successful. It’s just a click to subscribe, and you can be anywhere and get the support.”
The first responder text services are provided by the Supporting Psychological Health in First Responders grant in partnership with Alberta Health Services, the University of Alberta, and the Heroes in Mind Advocacy & Research Consortium based in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine