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How military research can improve the lives of first responders and their families

How military research can improve the lives of first responders and their families

Popular culture often depicts Public Safety Personnel such as firefighters, paramedics and military personnel as hero-like figures whose job is to keep others safe. And yet behind the uniform and protective equipment are regular people, who have challenging professions with many risks that largely go unnoticed.

Dr. Cramm, an Associate Professor in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy and lead for military and Veterans family research at the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR), has spent her career working to better understand the experiences and needs of the families of military personnel and Veterans. Her interest was sparked through her clinical work in child psychiatry, where she would see families coming from the military but couldn’t find any research or guidance on how to best understand the impacts of the military family lifestyle on health and health service access. “What I realized when I was working was, like most people in Canada, I had so little awareness of what military families are experiencing and how they access healthcare.”

Military families move 2 to 3 times more often than other Canadian families, disrupting their access to provincial healthcare services. These families are faced with the realities of extended periods of parental absence due to training and deployment while living with the added stress of heightened risk of injury, illness, and death for their loved ones. As a case in point, during the recent COVID-19 state of emergency, military personnel were deployed to long-term care homes, where they provided frontline support under volatile conditions. The emergence of the COVID-19 virus has altered the lives of military and public safety personnel in ways that further exacerbate the challenges that they, and their families, face. Due to their increased risk of exposure to the virus and the highly ambiguous nature of transmission, some were forced to isolate from their families, sleeping in their garages and basements for fear of passing on the virus to their loved ones. Dr. Cramm received funding from The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to collect, synthesize, and circulate emerging practices that respond to COVID-related stressors impacting the families of military personnel, as well as the families of public safety personnel such as paramedics and firefighters.

As a family researcher and an occupational therapist, Dr. Cramm has been very interested in families connected to these occupational groups who bear responsibility for the safety and security of our communities. Those who serve in these roles carry considerable occupational risk while facing dynamic requirements that shape the roles, routines, and rhythms of the family. While exposures to potentially traumatic events for military, Veterans, and public safety personnel have been researched, the ways in which the family members are affected is far less developed. Drawn-out and/or frequent intermittent absences of one parent can have a dramatic impact on family life. The stresses and potentially traumatic exposures for the serving personnel can make their way home while family members manage work-family conflict. And, for the family members who see their loved one regularly go off to work in a job that comes with heightened risks, concern and anxiety can become a part of daily life.

This year, Dr. Cramm continues her study on the parents of ill and injured Canadian Armed Forces Veterans, funded by True Patriot Love. The work with families of military and Veterans has provided a strong foundation for her research program which has natural application to the families of public safety personnel. Along with Dr. Deborah Norris (Mount Saint Vincent University), Dr. Alyson Mahar (University of Manitoba, Dr. Joy MacDermid (Western University, and Nora Spinks (The Vanier Institute of the Family), she is also launching Home⬟Base/Foyer⬟Travail, a study to understand the experiences and needs of families of public safety personnel and the ways in which public safety organizations might address them, for which she was awarded a 3-year Team Grant of over $720,000 from the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR). “As of right now we know virtually nothing about the families of our public safety personnel and so we are trying very hard to understand what their needs are,” says Dr. Cramm. “Being able to recognize that the family has requirements, but also is a form of social support and strength for the person who is serving, will pay long-term dividends for the families, for the communities and for the organizations that care for them.” Dr. Cramm’s focus on families will also be threaded through the CIHR Team Grants lead by her colleagues Dr. Nicholas Carleton (University of Regina), Dr. Rose Ricciardelli (Memorial), and Dr. Greg Anderson (Thompson Rivers University).

Central to Dr. Cramm’s research is collaboration. Not only is her research team interdisciplinary, so is the research itself. “When you work in a child and family clinical setting it is very interdisciplinary and different professionals are represented,” says Dr. Cramm, speaking to the importance of collaboration, specifically in family-related research. “These are issues that are not straightforward, there's not one factor, but a myriad of factors that all converge. You have people dealing with different lifestyle dimensions in relation to these occupations. If we don't collaborate with other professions and have interdisciplinary research teams with rich trainee programs, then we're not going to be able to properly understand or address these issues.”

Through her research, Dr. Cramm will explore how occupational risks and requirements that are “part of the job” potentially affect the lives of more than just the person who is serving. Ultimately, she hopes that her research will spark further discussion on topics that are only just beginning to be recognized. Understanding the experiences of families is the first step towards reducing health barriers enhancing their mental wellness. This can lead to policy changes and the development of supports that are unique to the needs of military, Veterans, public safety personnel, and their families. The work is meaningful and exemplifies CIMVHR’s tagline, “Serving those who serve us."

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