EMS professionals, advocates and artists bring needed attention to PTSD

It is critical for EMTs and paramedics to check in with one another and advocate nationally for recognition of PTSD as a work-related illness

Our EMS colleagues in Canada have been making headway in getting post-traumatic stress disorder recognized as a work-related illness. Ontario may follow Manitoba and Alberta’s move last year to help EMS providers manage their mental health conditions where there was little help previously.

PTSD is getting more attention, most likely due to returning veterans of recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. The attention is tragically well deserved; active duty military personnel suffer the highest rate of PTSD. But it’s becoming more evident that homeland protectors, such as EMTs, paramedics, firefighters and cops, suffer from PTSD at much higher rates — six times — than the general population.

PTSD is associated with addictive disorders, anxiety, depression and suicide. PTSD has the ability to be as debilitating as any other psychiatric or physical illness and can be as life threatening.

The EMS profession and its advocacy organizations in the United States have not been as progressive as the Canadians at identifying mental illness in its providers. Stigma still exists and stereotypes promulgated in statements such as "tough it out" or "no one is forcing you to do this job" made by those both within and outside of the industry. Even though we’ve made great strides in awareness of the issue, we have a long way to go.

In the meantime, it’s up to us to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper. Signs of PTSD include reliving experiences, avoiding situations that serve as reminders of stressful events, negative changes in beliefs and feelings, and feeling jittery, hyper alert and anxious.

Signs of depression in the workplace can include missing days or work, performing poorly, fatigue and loss of motivation or burnout.

The artists and storytellers in our midst are bringing much needed attention to the day-to-day stresses of EMS. Kevin Hazzard's shares his experiences as a paramedic in his recently published memoir, "A Thousand Naked Strangers." R.J. Walker, a spoken word artist and former EMT, powerfully and candidly describes the stress of responding to an infant in cardiac arrest in his poem "Deceit & I." Paramedic and artist Daniel Sundahl creates stunning images of stressful scenes to relieve his own stress and give comfort to others.  

If you are alongside a colleague in the ambulance, on scene, or in the station and have noticed a change in their outlook or personality, check in with them. You'll never know if something is wrong unless you ask. And it might be the opportunity for someone to open up and perhaps, get much needed help.

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