How an Idaho EMS agency is raising awareness after two employee suicides

Saving first responders’ lives starts with openly talking about suicide, providing education and offering 24/7 trained peer counselors

By Hadley Mayes, Public Information Officer and Marketing Coordinator
Ada County Paramedics

Losing a colleague is hard. Losing two colleagues is even harder. And losing them both to suicide, within a year, reconfigures the meanings of baseline and normal.

Ada County Paramedics Honor Guard members Robert Vander Stelt and Chris Ehrman stand with Ada County Sheriff representatives in a memorial cordon for Ada County Paramedics Donna Seller’s memorial service (Photo by Andrea Cobler)
Ada County Paramedics Honor Guard members Robert Vander Stelt and Chris Ehrman stand with Ada County Sheriff representatives in a memorial cordon for Ada County Paramedics Donna Seller’s memorial service (Photo by Andrea Cobler)

After you experience a work-related suicide, a bad day is no longer a stern word from someone or a dribble of coffee down a freshly-pressed uniform shirt. A bad day is the death of someone you care about, by his or her own hands.

Words we use matter
The two employee suicides we faced in 2015 at Ada County Paramedics made us all adjust our paradigms. Working on the public information side, it made me more aware of messaging and words.

"Suicide" was once a word I said in a whisper. It was a dark, intangible thing, flippantly described as selfish. I’ve come to understand that suicide is not a selfish act, nor is it something to be said in a hushed voice. Calling suicide selfish and hiding it perpetuates this dark cycle of silence and shame.

Why would a friend, co-worker or loved one reach out for help if he or she thought they’d be called selfish for doing so?

Katie Hurley, in the article "There is nothing selfish about suicide" urges that we "practice using the words 'suicide' and 'depression' so that they roll off the tongue as easily as 'unicorns' and 'bubble gum.'"

To save lives we must openly discuss mental health from a clinical standpoint and resist the urge to label it with ill-informed words simply because we do not understand it or have never endured it.

The two employee suicides at Ada County Paramedics have made us all take our mental health and the mental health of those around us more seriously. It has made us more carefully consider someone’s cautious or despondent response to the canned question, "How are you?"

Now, when someone, anyone, says he or she is feeling down, we all take that as an invitation and an obligation to seriously ask questions that we might have been too uncomfortable to ask a year ago.

We can’t risk not asking.

Planning two suicide memorials taught me that.

Peer support team
Following the employee suicides, Ada County Paramedics has begun constructing a Peer Support Team. The team of 15 employees is overseen by a battalion chief. Team members were identified by their peers through an internal survey and then asked to volunteer because their peers viewed them as a person they would comfortably confide in.

The Peer Support Team plans to meet quarterly, in partnership with a mental health professional who will be appointed as an associate to the team. The team members will also complete quarterly continuing education in mental health and counseling. The team has completed counseling training through the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, taught by a representative from the Boise Police Department.

Battalion chief and Peer Support Team lead John Blake says the team was formed to ingrain into our culture the belief that we are here for one another and will provide immediate assistance to any of our employees, day or night.

"We rely on each other now, but we don’t do it in a formal way," Blake said, adding that the Peer Support Team will do just that.

"When someone comes to us, we’re responding with a compassionate ear. We will ask ourselves if they are able to go back to work or if they need to be referred to a professional counselor for more support," Blake said.

Blake says the team will be available to all Ada County Paramedics providers and staff if they find themselves with a problem or crisis and have an immediate need.

"The sheer act of talking about it can mitigate it," Blake said.

In addition to the newly formed Peer Support Team, Ada County Paramedics has mental health professionals available to any of our employees for any reason. It is our sincere hope that the combination of these resources will diminish events like we’ve faced in the past.

Educate yourself and check in with friends regularly
Educating ourselves and learning warning signs associated with suicide is paramount. If someone opens up to you about thoughts of suicide, listen, make eye contact and take it very seriously. Fifty to 75 percent of those who attempt suicide tell someone about it beforehand.

Check in on your friends, especially those you know who may struggle with depression. Even if they aren’t overly responsive, let them know you are available and that you care. When it comes to mental health and depression, you can never ask someone how he or she is doing too many times. Make a point to overdo it.

And never be afraid to voice your concern. What you might consider an insignificant interaction could end up being what ultimately saves someone from taking his or her own life.

Each year in the United States, 30,000 people die by suicide and 750,000 people attempt suicide. It's time to decimate the stigma by changing the words we use and supporting one another to bring those numbers down.

It's time to talk about suicide and depression.

About Ada County Paramedics
Ada County (Idaho) Paramedics has provided exceptional medical care and superior service since 1975. Our expertise and genuine concern for our patients are just a few of the many things that shape our philosophy, which is based on integrity, trust, humanity, stewardship and excellence.

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