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PTSD: How Working As A Paramedic Left Me With A Mental Health Emergency Of My Own

Many people often ask me: "You’re a paramedic, what’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”

09/05/2017 9:59 AM AEST | Updated 09/05/2017 10:01 AM AEST
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"Much more needs to be done to support our front line paramedics and intervene before it’s too late."

Many people often ask me: "You're a paramedic, what's the worst thing you've ever seen?"

This question always sends shivers down my spine because I'm afraid of what memories might come up.

My answer is never: "When I witnessed a man blow his head off with a shot gun" or "attempting to resuscitate a baby after a car accident". Instead, I avoid every possibility to talk about those things and just provide a case that does not want to make me run in the opposite direction.

Having PTSD is a constant daily struggle for me. Some days I'll get up feeling I can tackle anything, but then I hear a baby screaming or the sound of a siren and my heart starts pounding and I experience a gut-wrenching feeling. These triggers or flashbacks can come when you least expect it, which makes daily living such a battle.

Unfortunately for some paramedics, having PTSD and other mental illnesses will be an ongoing issue long after retirement.

When I first started as a trainee paramedic nearly 10 years ago, I really enjoyed the job. I enjoyed the unpredictability, the rush and excitement of going to a case by lights and sirens. I never felt anxious or was symptomatic with PTSD at this stage, and it wasn't until about four or five years into the job that I felt different. But I couldn't put my finger on what it was. I would get told by friends and family that I was moody, angry, depressed, and I felt I could never really enjoy anything I did, not even with my kids.

I thought to myself: "I'm just stressed and tired, it'll be alright", but unfortunately this was not the case and my symptoms became worse.

I began having nightmares, drinking to excess, being physically aggressive by punching walls and snapping over the slightest little things. I started to have suicidal thoughts and even had thoughts of driving the ambulance off a hill or into a tree. In the end it became the last chance saloon with my family, and my wife gave me an ultimatum to seek help or she was leaving.

This came as a big blow and it was only after a very confronting and horrific case that I reached a tipping point. I was taken off road from operational duties to seek help and I went to see my GP and psychologist. I was assessed using the DSM-5 scale, and after reviewing my results I was told my symptoms were severe for PTSD and immediate treatment was recommended.

I was off work for approximately six months, which I found extremely hard. I found myself crying and emotional and regularly had thoughts of suicide.

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I felt at the time, when I was at my worst, more could have been done by my employer. Until I was diagnosed with PTSD my employer did not treat my symptoms or behavior appropriately or consider that I might have a mental illness. Given the type of work we do as paramedics, the support, treatment and intervention we provide our patients should certainly be as important for our own staff.

Much more needs to be done to support our front line paramedics and intervene before it's too late. Unfortunately for some paramedics, having PTSD and other mental illnesses will be an ongoing issue long after retirement.

My suggestion would be to provide training for staff in mental health first aid, so that we are able to support each other. This would encourage people to seek help and stamp out the stigma that still exists in the emergency services.

For aspiring paramedics, employers now have an opportunity to make a shift in a much more positive direction, to build resilience, awareness and training, and improve the mental health and wellbeing of paramedics.

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John is a guest on this week's episode of Insight at 8.30pm on SBS, which hears from employees and employers about how mental illness is being managed in the workplace.

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