Emergency personnel are charged with responding to calls that range from routine transports to incredibly devastating and traumatic incidents that can take a lasting toll on their mental health and well-being. Challenges with PTSD in this industry are often not addressed because of a culture that has subscribed to a “suck-it-up” narrative. This approach isn’t doing first responders any favors—suicide and PTSD rates among those who work in emergency services are almost double those of the general population.
The depression and suicidal thoughts that can manifest with caregivers is avoidable. Battling with these things is often considered the nature of the job, while in reality leadership needs to equip personnel with healthy techniques to build a resiliency to the stresses and trauma that come with this line of work.
This week at the 14th Pinnacle EMS Leadership Forum in Orlando, one session provided a different perspective on PTSD—a topic that needs to be talked about more in the EMS community.
With mass-casualty events gaining increasing concern nationwide, emergency preparedness has heightened with new response procedures. But what about the emotional toll they can have on the men and women who provide the life-saving care?
That’s a question Peter Antevy, M.D. pediatric emergency medicine, EMS physician and medical director, posed at the opening of the discussion. Sharing his experience with a national tragedy that hit too close to home in Parkland, Florida, he depicted a vivid scene of how the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting affected him, his personnel and the community of people who responded.
“This is my community. These are people that I know,” he said. “The reason I’m taking you there is to understand that I was a disaster. We had no experience with this at all and I just found myself in this situation.”
Antevy’s account showed how emergency responders—from the 9-1-1 dispatchers taking the calls of the horrified students to the personnel risking their lives on the ground—were impacted by the shooting they never saw coming that day. It demonstrated that no matter how well-trained responders are, you can’t anticipate the impact these events will have on their emotional well-being.
“You don’t need the diagnosis to get the treatment,” said Jim Marshall, a therapist whose recent book, The Resilient 911 Professional, provides valuable insight on how to foster psychological well-being of caregivers and equip them for optimal response. His presentation focused on how PTSD is curable and the negative impact of a culture that does not support mental health and providing research-based methods to combat it.
Professionally trained by the creator of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a psychotherapy treatment designed to help process the emotional trauma associated with high-stress experiences, Marshall explained the benefits EMDR can have on EMS.
Demonstrating that PTSD is a “time-zone problem” with personnel constantly revisiting traumatic memories of the past, he invited an EMS chief to share a personal testimonial of healing his own PTSD using the methodology, who said, “now that call is just like any other I’ve experienced in my 30 years of service.”
Rounding out the discussion, Mike Taigman, EMS leader and improvement guide for FirstWatch, spoke about the characteristic of resiliency and how it can be fostered among emergency personnel with constructive leadership.
Alluding to the neuroscience of PTSD and how the brain processes emotional responses, he asked leaders in the audiences, “What are some of the things in your culture that poke the amygdala of your team members?”
This prompted discussion around being aware of the emotional health of the individuals that make up your organization, where Taigman provided recommendations on how to make them feel seen, heard and supported on their journey to resiliency.