Nfld. & Labrador

Paramedicine students plan careers that come with increased risk of mental illness

In a field where post-traumatic stress disorder is common, paramedics-in-training in St. John's are learning coping strategies before they're exposed to trauma.

'It's just good to be prepared for it'

Paramedicine students are training at the College of the North Atlantic in St. John's. (Sherry Vivian, CBC )

Like other students in her paramedic training program, Breanna Penney is already preparing for the possibility of developing mental health problems once she gets a job.  

Penney is enrolled in the paramedicine program at the College of the North Atlantic in St. John's, pursuing a longtime desire to work in the medical field.

She knows the excitement of saving lives will be tempered by tragedies. 

"Seeing deaths happen is going to be quite traumatizing," said Penney. "And perhaps if we ever have to come across family members … that'll be a difficult thing to go through." 

Breanna Penney has dreamed of a career in the medical field since she was a child. She's training to be a paramedic at the College of the North Atlantic in St. John's. (Sherry Vivian, CBC )

Paramedics-in-training say a course on mental health offered by the Paramedic Association of Newfoundland and Labrador will help keep them healthier once they start their careers. 

Association president Rodney Gaudet delivered the session in the same room where students learn hands-on skills. Earlier that day, they'd used each other's arms to practise inserting IV lines. 

The room is full of equipment, including several life-sized training dummies — or manikins — bandage rolls and a stretcher.   

Students in the Primary Care Paramedicine program at the College of the North Atlantic in St. John's practise transferring a patient onto an ambulance stretcher. The students hone their skills using life-sized dummies, or manikins. (Sherry Vivian, CBC )
 

Student Kevin Murphy is candid about the possibility that he could develop post-traumatic stress disorder. 

"It's not really natural for a normal person to see what we're going to see. So the possibility of PTSD happening is almost guaranteed in some cases without the proper self-care and knowing when to seek help," said Murphy. 

He said he has an excellent support system of friends, relatives and other paramedics-in-training to rely on if necessary. 

For her part, Penney said she's already learning coping techniques. She plans to make sure she doesn't isolate herself if what she experiences on the job gets difficult. 

Like Murphy, Penney also plans to get help at the first sign that she might need it.

Paramedics open up about PTSD 

The course, offered to paramedics in many parts of Canada, is called Road to Mental Readiness. Its delivery in Newfoundland follows from an informal poll of association members last fall — 94 per cent said they didn't have enough resources or knowledge about job-related stress and PTSD. 

Students in the paramedicine program at the College of the North Atlantic routinely wear uniforms to class. (Sherry Vivian, CBC )

As a result, the provincial government gave the association a small grant to take the course to paramedics in communities including Gander, Stephenville, and Clarenville. 

The four-hour course gives first responders information on warning signs to watch for both in themselves and in their colleagues.

Gaudet said it has been eye-opening and emotional to see some paramedics who are enrolled in the sessions open up about their experiences with PTSD. 

"It really opened up the door about how prevalent it is here in the province," said Gaudet.

Rodney Gaudet has been travelling across Newfoundland to deliver a course to paramedics called The Road to Mental Readiness. Gaudet is the president of the Paramedic Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. (Sherry Vivian, CBC )

However, there are no reliable numbers to go on. 

A national survey of paramedics, police officers, firefighters and 911 operators published last year in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry suggested that first responders are much more likely to develop mental disorders than people in the general population. 

"I often wonder if I've had signs and symptoms of PTSD," admitted Gaudet.

He's an advanced-care paramedic with Med Flight NL, the provincial air ambulance service, and has worked as a paramedic for 12 years. 

Gaudet said he's never been diagnosed with PTSD. However, he said, memories of some calls are still vivid, even if they took place years ago.

Those involving children are the worst. Gaudet said in some cases he can remember the colour and layout of the house he was in, and the looks on people's faces.  

Gaudet added that people sometimes ask paramedics about the worst call they've ever been on. 

"That's basically like asking us to bring out our demons and to show them to the world," said Gaudet.

He said paramedics try to keep those images hidden away from their day-to-day lives.  

Less stigma about saying you have a problem 

Paramedicine student Penney accepts the potential risks she's facing in her chosen field.

"PTSD and mental illness in first responders is something that we cannot avoid, so it's just good to be prepared for it," said Penney. 

She's fascinated by paramedicine and intrigued by the prospect of being first on a scene when help is needed, including the adrenalin rush.  

Fellow student Kevin Murphy said he chose paramedicine because helping others makes him feel better about himself. 

Kevin Murphy is looking forward to a career in paramedicine.
 

He says there's been progress when it comes to paramedics and mental illness. 

"It's becoming less of a stigma to come out and say that you have an issue, a mental issue," said Murphy. 

PANL is working on plans to bring the Road to Mental Readiness course to paramedics in Labrador. 

About the Author

Ramona Dearing has worked as a reporter, host and producer at CBC's St. John's bureau.