Dealing with the stress of the job is not a routine part of paramedic training. In times past, one had to hide any stress or internal turmoil. The old adage, “If you cannot stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” often applied. Sadly, this led to adverse behavior among a few members of the profession. Drinking, drug abuse, verbal or physical outbursts or other behavior was not uncommon.
Not everyone succumbed to the “dark side” of the field. Some chose to talk to members of the clergy, seek treatment from private counselors or other types of therapy. Treatment was paid for out of the person’s pocket, as many companies and systems did not cover the cost.
Paramedics are subjected to many calls involving trauma, severe illness or death. Often upon returning home, questions raised by family and friends can lead to conflict. Paramedics do not want to describe horrific injuries or things encountered in the field. Sometimes, the paramedic will be withdrawn and spend time alone. This can lead to relationships breaking apart. Divorces and breakups are not uncommon.
Today, nearly every EMS company and system has specially trained counselors, either on staff or contracted to help paramedics deal with stress and emotional trauma. Family counseling may also be offered in order to help members deal with the stress of watching the news and seeing the paramedic at risk. Every member of EMS has had instances of coming home and hearing the statement, “I saw you on the news.” The next few sentences are usually suggestions that the paramedic took too much risk, was doing something dangerous or that the paramedic should quit and do something else. These statements are made out of fear and stress.
Having a solid base of support from friends and family will help the paramedic maintain his or her mental health. Having a hobby will help channel stress into something constructive. A sense of empowerment can go a long way to alleviate some of the feelings experienced in the field.
While on shift, dealing with stress or emotional trauma can be difficult. In a system or company with no available counseling, one must become creative. “Gallows humor” is a way to relieve stress by using humor. The incident is laughed at or made fun of in a way that makes people laugh at the station. It was showcased in the television series “MASH.” This humor is never used in view of the public or the media. It is strictly used at the station. It is not used all the time, however. Discretion will teach the paramedic when joking is or is not appropriate.
One way to deal with a traumatic call is to do something that makes the paramedic feel good. At my station, using a favorite food was popular. Since not all calls are particularly traumatic, I did not eat my favorite junk food all the time. It became such a part of the station that one could tell what was going on by the food being eaten. Our family and friends were happy to visit when the celebratory barbeque was in full swing.