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Why my overwhelming fear of being stigmatized overshadows progress

I hope to one day not be judged, blamed and made to feel less than human for something that I am truly trying my best with

By 24-year-old EMTB, 8 years in EMS

I’m a paramedic student in a sizable urban system, and I’m scared of what I’m getting myself into.

I’ve failed out before and I’m terrified of failing again. I’ve suffered from depression since well before getting into EMS at the age of 16, and the prevailing negative attitude toward mental health in this profession has only served to bolster it.

That being said, I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. I have a desire to help people. All people. I’m willing to put up with the “crap” calls because who am I to define what constitutes a crisis in the eyes of another? Sure, we have those who are aware that their call is not an “emergency,” but who am I to judge the circumstances that lead up to that person calling us? Who am I to judge someone who is so desperately lonely that 911 is their only means of company, or so desperately hopeless that they’d prefer to spend a night in the ER just for a warm place to sleep and a meal?

The most frustrating thing to me isn’t the fact that we get those calls. It’s the lack of help that follows. It’s hearing the same address on the radio four times in a week, knowing full well that it’s never going to be over. It’s knowing that there is so little that I alone can do.

Mental health is a joke. I’ve seen it too many times; the “jaded” paramedic or ER nurse who snarks about how a suicide attempt would have gone more smoothly if the victim had just “done their research,” or how they “just wanted attention.”

I’ve been in EMS long enough to know and frequently use dark humor as a coping mechanism, but when you’re outwardly judging a patient, you send a certain message: your problems aren’t real. No one cares.

There was the medic who sat there joking the entire ride next to our conscious but obtunded patient who had overdosed on pills and alcohol, on a holiday, with her husband and two young children in the house. Something led up to that patient getting to that point. You don’t know. You don’t have a right to judge or turn it into a joke. You don’t have a right to strip someone of the very essence of being human because you don’t understand why they did it.

I don’t care if you don’t think that someone’s “reason” for depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, etc. is “good enough.” Sometimes there is no reason. That’s the nature of it. Life isn’t a movie with an obvious solution to every problem. When someone with no risk factors has an MI, we don’t treat them any less than human and turn the other cheek because “there wasn’t a good enough reason for it to happen.” Why we aren’t treating mental health the same is beyond me, because with a lack of treatment and understanding it will kill just as readily as any physical condition, given enough time.

I try to bury my depression daily because I know I don’t deserve to feel “less than.” I’m terrified of it. I have been seeking help but sometimes the lack of a support network outside of that and the overwhelming fear of being stigmatized overshadows progress.

I wrestle a lot with feeling like I’m a bad person, even though there is no reason for it. I constantly feel like I have to apologize for myself. My anxiety eats me alive most nights. I go through cycles where I lash out at my friends and family because someone left me hanging and I couldn’t handle it.

I used to do cocaine because it was the only thing that made me feel like I was above the darkness and able to be productive. I’m not making excuses for myself but one has to understand: nobody is born intent on burning bridges, being an angry jerk, wanting to die. Nobody steps back when they’re searching the internet for “how to tie a workable noose” and thinks to themselves “I really want this.” Nobody actually sees dying from pills or a bullet or CO or whatever as an ideal alternative to living a fulfilling life.

We’re afraid to fix it, and we don’t know how to in an environment where mental health is shoved to the wayside at the expense of dark humor and a fundamental lack of understanding. It’s so much easier for those on the outside to laugh or blame than to understand.

I hope to one day feel comfortable enough in my environment to be open, and not feel alone despite hundreds of thousands of people who share the same struggle. I hope to one day not be judged, blamed and made to feel less than human for something that I am truly trying my best with. This is not a choice. It’s time we stopped treating it like one.

The Code Green Campaign calls a ‘code alert’ on the mental health of EMTs and paramedics by breaking the silence about mental illness in EMS by sharing the stories of those who have been there. The Code Green Campaign has selected this story and we are glad to share it with EMS1 readers. Learn more about the Code Green Campaign.