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New Wash U Research Finds ‘Alarming’ Stats About Mental Health Of Paramedics And EMTs

A paramedic sits in an ambulance after a traumatic call.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
New research by Washington University has found that nearly 30% of the EMS providers they surveyed had thought about suicide in the past year.

Researchers at Washington University have found that paramedics and emergency medical technicians are seven times as likely as the general public to have thought about suicide in the past year.

Five emergency medicine doctors surveyed more than 900 paramedics in Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Iowa over three months in 2017. The results were published in an industry journal this month.

“They witness firsthand some of the most horrific things that can happen to a human being, so that in itself is stressful,” said Dr. Bridgette Svancarek, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Wash U and the assistant program director of the school’s EMS fellowship. “On top of that, the pay is poor, and the hours can be pretty awful.”

Svancarek was not surprised that the survey found EMS providers were more likely to have thought about suicide than the general public and that they are at higher risk of suicide. But she said the data should be “alarming” to medical directors or supervisors.

“You have several EMS providers that are actively contemplating suicide, so the first step is recognizing that this is a problem and reaching out to your providers and offering support to them, because there’s such a negative stigma across the board with first responders as far as mental health goes,” Svancarek said.

Keith Goldstein, the chief of the Riverview Fire Protection District, said that over the years, he’s learned what to look for among his firefighters, all of whom are also trained to respond to medical emergencies.

“You know how firefighters are, we love to eat. When they’re not at the kitchen table when everyone else is, that’s a sign of stress,” he said. “Distancing themselves away from everybody, calling in sick.”

Dr. Al Lulla, a fourth-year resident in emergency medicine at Wash U and the paper’s lead author, said the results might help lift some of the stigma.

“Just knowing that many of their colleagues are struggling with similar thoughts of depression and suicide, I think it opens up the door to feel comfortable to reaching out to other people, and it helps to seek resources from your organization or from your peers,” he said.

In addition to stigma, Lulla and Svancarek found other barriers to seeking help included EMS providers feeling as though therapists available through their employers did not understand the job they did.

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Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.