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With statewide Emergency Medical Service worker numbers still down a third, there’s plenty of overtime for those often making life and death ambulance runs.
With all that OT, there’s overwhelming stress — and a dire need for more mental health support.
Bridgeport Director of Emergency Management Tim Curry recently wrote an article in the National Journal of Emergency Medical Services entitled, Suck it up Culture is Killing First Responders. He wrote that he had answered a call like a hundred others, but one was about an interstate wreck that killed a young girl.
“I was looking through her phone and seeing the text from her mom, saying, ‘Hey, why aren’t you home yet? Where are you at? I’m worried,’” Curry said. “That hit me really hard. I had seen things that were way worse than that up to that point, but that was the point I got to where it was too much. I had to step away.”
The incident of post-traumatic stress overwhelmed the veteran EMT. Curry said he turned to alcohol, forsaking the longstanding “suck it up” first responder mantra, before realizing he needed help.
“Realizing that this is not normal and that I needed to talk to somebody was a hard journey for somebody that’s always been, ‘I’m okay, I’m tough, I can handle it, I don’t need any help,’” Curry said. “I looked in the mirror and said, ‘I need to deal with this.’ It was a long journey to get here.”
Nationally, more than 100 first responders committed suicide in 2021, more than died in the line of duty. West Virginia has lost more than 1,900 EMTs over the past three years to retirement and simply leaving the job. While recruitment and retainment efforts are ongoing, Curry said his overworked colleagues need more mental health support and outlets to deal with the trauma.
“They need to know that it’s okay to need to take a break, and it’s okay to not be okay and to talk about it with somebody. They need to have healthy coping mechanisms, good diet, exercise, hobbies, things that are outlets for your stress from the workplace,” Curry said. “Go and do something, whatever it is, play golf, go skiing, go hiking, whatever it is to blow off that steam in a healthy way.”
West Virginia Emergency Medical Director Jody Ratliff takes personal calls from traumatized first responders needing to talk to someone who knows the feeling. He said more mental health support is paramount to leaving the “suck it up” mentality behind — while moving forward.
“If we talk about retention and keeping folks in EMS and first responders across the board, if we’re going to talk about retention, mental health is a huge issue that we’ve just never spoken about,” Ratliff said. “It affects you over time, it affects your physical ability, your mental ability, and then people want to leave the business because they just can’t handle it anymore.”
Ratliff said he is looking at West Virginia adopting an EMS mental health support program and an app now seeing success in Florida.
“First responders across the state can go into this app, and they plug in some things on how they’re feeling that day, or something that might have just happened,” Ratliff said. “It might say to reach out to someone in the next few days, or it might put you in contact with a mental health professional right then and there.”
Curry calls setting up a mental health support app is an excellent first step.
“The fact that people are waking up to this and doing something about it now speaks volumes to where we’re at versus where we’ve been. We’re seeing the effects of long-term burnout and long-term issues dealing with everything that first responders see, and we’re facing a massive paramedic shortage now, because we neglected this problem for a long time,” Curry said. “There needs to be better access to get good mental health care covered by your insurance. These agencies need to do a better job of saying we’re going to cover this, we’re going to even employ somebody and help in-house, which is what the city of Huntington is doing.”
Ratliff said he’s working with EMS directors across the state to get the “suck it up” monkey off of everybody’s back.
“It’s okay to talk about the stigma, it’s time for the stigma to go away. We all deal with this, whether we want to admit it or not. It’s something that we’ve all dealt with in our careers,” Ratliff said. “I speak very publicly about me dealing with my own trauma during my career, and getting help and what it meant to me and my career and my life.”
Curry said a quarter of West Virginia EMS workers report mental health issues and those are only the ones who admit it. He said it is past time to go from “suck it up,” to stand up — and deal with the issues.