I work in a profession with high rates of substance abuse, mental health challenges, and a high potential for burnout. I regularly hear how people in my profession don’t even realize they have these mental health challenges. It’s gotten so bad that my profession’s association in my state has created a peer support and referral network for substance abuse and mental health. You thought I was talking about EMS, didn’t you? Wrong. I’m also a lawyer and we are regularly warned about mental health issues involved with lawyers. (Nope, not going to put a lawyer joke here.) There’s also a ton of profession-specific outreach and awareness of mental health issues going on for physicians as well.
It’s VERY true that EMS has the potential for mental health challenges. We’d be improving if we said that EMS did a crummy job of addressing provider mental health. In too many organizations, mental health is ignored or paid lip service at best.
But we’re EMS. We are convinced that everything is all about us. ALL THE TIME. We wear t-shirts with slogans that confirm the worst about us being “ambulance drivers.” We constantly want you to know how special we are, whether it’s t-shirts or attention-seeking social media posts and memes about “racing the reapers,” how we “save lives,” or some other random “look at me” theme. So, when the less informed of us in EMS get interested in mental health, it’s the same thing.
The truth is that we’ve all seen things in EMS that no person should ever see. We are in a position of public trust where we get a ringside seat to the human condition at its ugliest. I’ll let you in on a secret. A lot of other people get to see some of this as well. Imagine what social workers dealing with the abuse of the elderly, the disabled, and children see. Imagine being a school teacher and dealing with the outcry of a child who’s been sexually abused or who’s coming to school hungry. Heck, imagine being a lawyer and being involved in a criminal trial for sexual abuse of a child or a civil case involving someone who made the decision to put profit ahead of the public. In other words: EMS isn’t as special or unique as we think. One of the biggest things that I learned from my psychologist is that the challenges I came to see her about were not unique. That alone was the biggest lesson I learned and the biggest thing that I remind myself daily. It’s a very liberating feeling to know that you’re not alone in your challenges. I think that EMS could collectively benefit from knowing that we’re not as special or unique as we think.
Mental health is a health issue. Period. It’s treatable. But first, it has to be diagnosed. BY AN ACTUAL MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL. There exists a subset of EMS providers who are convinced they have PTSD or some other mental health issue solely because they work in EMS and they wear it as a perverse badge of honor and martyrdom because “LOOK AT ME. I’M A HERO AND I WEAR THESE WOUNDS. LOOK AT ME!” Think about that for a second. I didn’t diagnose my own diabetes. My doctor did. She’s given me wonderful coping tools (namely dietary modifications and medications) to deal with this diagnosis and live my life as normally as I can. I don’t brag about being diabetic. I don’t seek attention because I’m diabetic. But there’s too many of us in EMS who wear a supposed mental health diagnosis like it’s a badge of honor or rite of passage in being a “real” medic.
I’m a lawyer. And the truth is, I love being a lawyer most days. There are days where it gets stressful, frustrating, or challenging. And you know what I do? Something other than being a lawyer. Whether it’s a road trip, time with family or friends, or even my passion of EMS, I do something other than being a lawyer. I recently saw a post on social media from a person worried about their mental health. They also work several EMS jobs and their profile has a typical “EMS hero” slogan on it. They need two things. 1) They need to see a qualified professional to make a diagnosis. They aren’t going to get a diagnosis on social media. 2) They need to restore their work-life balance. Take the time to do that which makes you the person that you are. And that’s not always EMS, law, or any other profession that you practice.
I apologize for the rant. I apologize for the indiscriminate use of capitalization. I apologize if you think I’m not being supportive. But I will never apologize for my belief that mental health in EMS (or life in general) is too important to be distilled into another meme. If you’re facing the challenges, get help. Real help. Professional help.
And one other thing. You’re more than your professional identity of being an EMT or a paramedic. Find that which recharges you. Find what makes you the person you are. When you’re off work, truly be off work. Maybe even take the time to hug someone in your family, your friend, or a significant other.