Taking Care of Those Who Take Care of Us
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, EMTs have worked the front lines, responding to calls for those suffering the worst of coronavirus symptoms.
EMTs have been stressed and overworked, some experiencing compassion fatigue, burnout, increased anxiety, and even PTSD.
This article covers how the pandemic has impacted the mental health of EMTs, and how the ongoing pandemic still affects them today.
The Ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic
As early as January 2020, EMS services began to get calls about the coronavirus. Despite the rising cases, the government response was slow, with some governments waiting until mid-March of 2020 to implement pandemic procedures and call for states of emergency. The pandemic was unprecedented. There was not enough time to prepare and there were not enough resources – both material and financial.
At the beginning of the pandemic, EMS and other medical care departments struggled due to the lack of information about symptoms and how the disease spreads. The gravity of the situation was not apparent until a month in when cases were piling up and contact tracing had virtually fallen apart. EMS agencies suffered both financial and staffing shortages, leading to EMS needing to work long hours to meet the demands.
In addition to COVID-19 cases, EMT crews dealt with another epidemic that had already been a problem before the pandemic started. The US was already contending with an epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose. It was reported in 2020 that opioid overdoses reached record highs.
Mental Health and COVID-19
The conditions of the pandemic led to an increase in mental health disorders in 2020. A report from June of 2020 states that 40% of adults were dealing with mental health or substance use. This is due to many different factors such as social isolation, negative media coverage, loss of family members, lack of mental healthcare resources, and PTSD from COVID.
EMT personnel can be especially sensitive to the mental health effects of the pandemic. The largest cause is the direct exposure to trauma and death related to a large-scale pandemic. While it is common for EMT personnel to be exposed to these factors and are trained to be resilient in these situations, the nature of a pandemic might differ from the urgency of a natural disaster.
Those working on the front lines experienced increased stress and insomnia, and fit the criteria for PTSD. A study found that 36% of those surveyed experienced psychological distress, 30.9% fit the criteria for PTSD, and 60.9% experienced insomnia.
Anxiety was also commonly reported. Some EMS personnel said they felt anxious about catching COVID and spreading it to their families. Others were concerned about work safety including the effectiveness of personal protective equipment, lack of pre-arrival instruction due to 911 dispatcher shortages, and lack of information about symptoms and how it spreads, due to the novelty of the virus.
Compassion fatigue was also reported. Those working the front lines experienced burnout and lack of motivation. The constant waves of the pandemic gave little room to recover. Many EMTs needed to work long hours without breaks to deal with staffing shortages.
Accepting the Pandemic's Effect on EMS Mental Health
EMS and other frontline workers might be hesitant to admit how the pandemic has affected their mental health because they are trained to deal with disasters. Due to the prolonged experiences, high pressure, and gravity of the pandemic, it is understandable that their mental health has been negatively affected. EMS might feel weak for being impacted. Resiliency training might address an urgent response to a natural disaster or a severe accident, but not the emergent and prolonged event of a global pandemic.
Taking Care of Your Mental Health During the Pandemic
While there have been fewer fatal cases due to the vaccines, there are still cases occurring in large numbers. It is uncertain when or if COVID-19 will be gone for good. This means that the world might need to adjust to a “new normal.” In light of this, EMS workers need to take care of themselves during this time, rather than wait it out.
Seek Support From Coworkers
Chances are, fellow coworkers feel overwhelmed, too. Individuals should reach out to their coworkers for support and talk about how they are feeling. Venting can make individuals feel less isolated.
Go to Therapy
If individuals are nervous about talking with a coworker, they should consider talking with a therapist who can help them work through problems at work and find new coping skills. A therapist can also help them process any of the trauma they have faced in the workplace.
Find Ways to De-stress
After work or in between shifts, take time to calm down, especially after a difficult day. Healthy ways to de-stress after work include practicing mindfulness exercises such as yoga, tai chi, or meditation, taking a bath, going for a run, watching a favorite show, cuddling with a pet, or writing in a journal.
Remember to Take Breaks
Take advantage of off time during work. If individuals need a break, they should take it. People can use this time to let their minds reset, or calm down. This can be a good time to practice a quick meditation exercise as a way to ground oneself.
Prioritize Physical Needs
Individuals should not neglect things such as exercise, sleep, nutrition, and personal hygiene. Neglecting oneself can have a negative effect on one's mental health.
Reach Out to Friends and Family
Make time to talk to friends and family. Reaching out to a support network can make individuals feel less alone.