Hello, my name is Jonathan and, in addition to being on the Providence team as a therapist, I also have the unique experience of working as a currently practicing paramedic in the Metro Vancouver area. Today, I want to discuss a topic that is close to my heart: the importance of prioritizing mental health among our dedicated first responders and health care professionals.
In my 7 years as a paramedic, I've had the privilege of attending to the needs of countless individuals with situations ranging from life-threatening to less than life-threatening (ask me about the time someone called 911 because he wanted a hamburger…)! Through it all, I’ve been able to bear witness to the realities of life, death, suffering, and recovery. My hope is that some of my reflections can be helpful to those currently walking this path and for those who are considering entering the world of first responders.
From Paramedic To Therapist: A Transformative Path
My journey from being a paramedic to a therapist was ignited by a powerful encounter with a young patient. A couple years into my career, I responded to a devastating call for an 11-year-old who attempted to take her own life. We had become alert to it because one of her friends saw a social media post and called 911 out of concern. We got to her in time and thankfully she ended up being OK physically. Emotionally and psychologically, on the other hand, she was in pretty rough shape. During the transport to the hospital, she opened up to me about her struggles with mental health and bullying, and the lack of understanding and support from her family. When we arrived at the hospital, she asked if I could stay with her, but as is the nature of our job, I had to say goodbye to her as I transferred her over to the care of the medical team. Even though I did all I could do, a part of me always wished that I could’ve done more.
For most patients I deal with, saying goodbye and not knowing their ultimate outcome has been something that I’ve become quite comfortable with. But the call with that young girl stayed with me. I wanted to be equipped to provide more comprehensive care for patients, both during their immediate crises and over the longer term. This experience was a turning point that led me to pursue a master’s degree in counselling psychology, and today I have the privilege of working with a range of clients, including youth navigating mental health challenges and fellow first responders processing their own trauma. In today’s post, I’ll focus on tips to help first responders maintain their mental well-being.
1. Maintain A Balanced Perspective
As first responders, our exposure to the world can sometimes lead to a negatively skewed view of reality. It's vital to maintain a balanced perspective and remember that what we deal with on a day-to-day basis is disproportionate to how things actually are.
Practical Tip: While our duty can from time to time involve saving lives, I think it’s important to recognize that our job isn’t to save people. Maybe a better way to look at it is that our job is to care. This small shift in perspective can offer an empowerment to let go of any negative outcomes that are completely outside of our control. The reality is sometimes people die or get worse despite our best efforts. We can’t always choose to save people, however, we can always choose how we show up to provide the best care we can.
2. Defining Your Identity Beyond The Job
In my time as a paramedic, I've been intentional about defining my identity beyond the profession. While it's true that we work as first responders, it’s also vital to recognize that we are multifaceted individuals with passions, interests, and connections that extend far beyond our roles. Recognizing and nurturing these aspects of ourselves safeguards our self-worth from the impact of work-related challenges. What if we lose our job or can’t do our job? Embracing our broader identity can be a cornerstone of resilience.
Practical Tip: A simple way to ingrain this idea is to consider altering your language from "I am a paramedic" to "I work as a paramedic." This small shift can help serve as a reminder that you are defined by more than your job.
3. Finding Meaning In The Work We Do
Throughout our careers, we’re entrusted with experiencing life's most profound moments. In my time as a paramedic, I’ve attended 67 deaths. This is a number I’ve intentionally kept track of as a way of commemorating that these individuals’ lives and deaths were now complete and that I had the privilege of being there to bear witness to it. As first responders, it’s easy over time to develop a more clinical and emotionally detached way of approaching patient care. While this is sometimes a necessary defence mechanism to deal with the cumulative stresses of the job, it’s also important to maintain a way of finding meaning in the work that we do, however that looks.
Consider implementing a practice of tracking significant moments, both positive and challenging. This could involve journalling or creating a private record that allows you to honour and reflect on the meaningful encounters you've had.
4. Beware Of Burnout
The demanding nature of our work carries the risk of burnout, a reality that can compromise the quality of care we provide. With many agencies experiencing staffing shortages, the allure of near-unlimited overtime pay is undeniable. However, it's crucial to remember that self-care and boundaries are integral to our sustained well-being. Balancing our dedication to our profession with the need for personal care ensures our capacity to serve effectively over the long term.
Set clear boundaries for work hours and personal time. Prioritize self-care activities that rejuvenate you, whether it's spending time with loved ones, pursuing hobbies, or engaging in relaxation techniques.
Bonus Practical Tip:
If the stresses of the job are taking their toll, don’t underestimate the power that a change of scenery can have. A simple trip away from your usual environment can help you step away from the intensity of your role and gain fresh perspective.
In our roles as first responders and health care professionals, we hold a unique position of service that demands compassion, strength, and adaptability. Remember that your well-being is paramount and seeking support is a sign of strength, not weakness.
If you or someone you know is struggling with the challenges of being a first responder, know that there is help available. For more information, reach out to our team of specialized trauma therapists for consultations on how we can assist you along your journey today.