The COVID-19 outbreak is an historical event. Emergency medical services (EMS) has a critical role in this pandemic, and we, as EMS personnel, are faced with considerable challenges daily. Although EMS and health care workers are certainly doing an important job, the “hero” image that has developed in the media, amongst the public, and in social media can have a long-term negative effect.
For many years, we in EMS have often felt like an afterthought to the health care system. This sudden “adoption” feels like a change we deserve.
However, while embracing this improved image from the general public, we need to be realistic and reflect on the effect this can have on us. During the past few years, the mental health of first responders has become a foremost concern for all of us in EMS. We now know that the personal price first responders pay for doing their job is considerable and can affect family life and mental health and can even increase the risk of suicide.
The gap between the hero image and real life can be overwhelming and, for some, impossible to negotiate. Does a hero need help? Does a hero cry or feel overwhelmed? We need to be very careful on what we idolize, especially to people who are new to EMS and can feel that they are expected to be “superheroes.”
Five years ago, after working as a paramedic for more than 10 years, I experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. This happened after I almost got shot in an active-shooter event. After a few wars, terror events, and the daily paramedic “routine,” my whole outlook on life and being a paramedic changed. Thankfully, after treatment, I recovered. I now understand how important it is to be in an environment that encourages first responders to speak and have professional help readily available.
So, although we should definitely acknowledge the new status we have and even feel like we are heroes (in many ways, we are), we should also understand that reality is more complicated; we are all human beings, not superheroes, and it is completely normal to feel overwhelmed, cry, be angry, and ask for help.
I encourage all EMS directors and management to address this issue immediately. The price we can pay is too high for us and for our families.