As a former member of the South Africa Police Service (SAPS), responding to someone in crisis isn’t anything new to Carina — it’s easier to offer help when someone is obviously hurt. But coming to someone’s aid when the hurt isn’t as obvious is more challenging and a big reason why Carina is trained as a mental health first aider at the Base Plant mine.

As a university student, Carina joined the SAPS reserve squad and dedicated five years to the service, unaware of the toll the job would take on her mental health.

“After attending a serious or stressful scene, my squad members and I would grab a coffee and talk about it,” says Carina. “That was our mental health first aid, connecting with others who understood what we were going through lightened the mental load.”

When Carina’s fiancé, who was also a police officer, was killed on duty she left the service to heal and start a new life. She moved to a different city and eventually a different country, leaving her support system behind.

When the 2016 wildfires happened in Fort McMurray, where Carina and her family now live, the trauma of her past came crashing into her. She had a significant mental health crisis, spent several months in hospital and was told her life would never be the same.

“I was labeled ‘mentally ill’ and shunned by family and friends,” explains Carina. “I felt ashamed and alone — something I don’t want anyone to ever feel.”

A photo of Carina wearing a green t-shirt. She is smiling and there is a wooden fence behind her.
Carina shares her mental health story to help others and is a mental health first aider at the Base Plant Mine.

Since then, Carina, who works as a communications advisor at Suncor’s Base Plant mine, has reestablished her support system and has become a mental health advocate, both at work and in her community, sharing her story to help others.

“Talking about it lightens the weight of feeling shamed and brought others who need help into my life,” says Carina. “Giving them hope, gives me purpose.”

As a mental health first aider, Carina is trained in how to recognize the symptoms of a mental illness and how to engage in difficult conversations and offer help. She also volunteers as the board president of the Canadian Mental Health Association of Wood Buffalo.

Mental health for all

While occupational trauma used to be associated with first responders only, recent studies suggest that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is seeping into other workplaces. According to the World Health Organization, employees across the globe have an 83 per cent higher risk of developing PTSD post-COVID.

“Mental health is something we all encounter and deal with every day,” says Iordanka Petzanova, Suncor’s Mental Health Specialist. “Although Mental Health Awareness Week brings more focus to it, how we interact with each other and the coping strategies we employ will affect our mental health. That philosophy applies to the importance of psychological safety and how we treat those around us every day.”

Suncor has many psychological well-being resources available to employees including its employee family assistance program and training focused on mental health.