First responder reflects on road to recovery from PTSD

Julia Somers had been working as a volunteer firefighter for three years when she decided to start work as a paramedic, as well.

Julia Somers says she came to realize when a patient dies, it doesn't mean she didn't do her job

Julia Somers says she didn't realize she needed help until she 'hit bottom.' (Submitted by Julia Somers)

Julia Somers had been working as a volunteer firefighter at the New Glasgow Fire Department for three years when she decided to start working as a paramedic, as well.

The 26-year-old had been working as a paramedic for about two years when she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"It got to the point where I had no push left anymore," Somers said.

"I didn't take care of myself and it came down to the point where I broke down and I really struggled emotionally."

'Hit bottom'

Early on in her time as a paramedic, Somers said there were a series of difficult situations that she now realizes were the start of her problems.

"It was a lot of calls that were quite traumatic in a very short time," she said. "There was five deaths in one week under the age of 50."

"Probably looking back now that was when I really started to struggle with my mental health and probably where my PTSD started as well."

Breaking Barriers, a first responders mental-health conference, was held in Summerside. (Facebook)

Somers said that for about a year-and-a-half she continued working in both positions and teaching first-aid without noticing she was having a problem.

"I started isolating and avoiding. I was avoiding the fire hall, I didn't want to be taking shifts as a paramedic."

Somers said she was upset one day and called her mother, who recognized something wasn't right and made a doctor's appointment for the next day.

"I guess I had hit bottom before I could realize that I wasn't in a good place," Somers said.

"I felt like I'd lost everything, who I was and what made me, me."

She went to the doctor, started talking to a therapist and told her colleagues that her work as a paramedic and firefighter would have to be put on hold.

"I had to stop everything for a time and really focus on me and self-care."

Road to recovery

Somers said speaking with her family, friends, other first responders and the families she had helped in her capacity as a paramedic and firefighter, aided in her recovery.

A source of stress for her was thinking that she hadn't done her job when things didn't end well for her patients, but in speaking with people she found that wasn't always the case.

"Just because it's not the outcome we necessarily want, we can still help," she said.

It's not a life sentence to have mental-health issues, or be diagnosed with a mental illness, it just takes a little bit more work than someone who's not. Or maybe a lot of work, but it's definitely been worth it for me.- Julia Somers

"I didn't realize until now, how much we do that does help even in very horrible, traumatic times for families."

Somers said that a key in her recovery was accepting limitations to her own ability to deal with the stress of being a first responder. 

"The average person doesn't see what we see every time we go to a call so we can't be expected to not be affected by it," she said. 

"I finally had to give in and realize that my way wasn't working anymore."

Somers said she is doing much better now and though she still has tough days, she has the tools to work through her anxiety and PTSD, and needs to take care of herself.

"Things are even better than OK now," she said.

"I've recovered but I'm not cured."

'Meant to help'

Somers was part of a panel at the Breaking Barriers conference in Summerside, a first responder mental-health conference.

She hopes that sharing her story will encourage others to speak about their mental health, and problems they may be trying to deal with on their own.

"It's not a life sentence to have mental-health issues, or be diagnosed with a mental illness, it just takes a little bit more work than someone who's not. Or maybe a lot of work, but it's definitely been worth it for me," she said.

Though she has stopped working as a paramedic, Somers continues at the New Glasgow Fire Department because she thinks of it as a calling and passion.

"I was meant to help, and to be a first responder. I fully believe that."

With files from Laura Chapin