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James Boomhower | April 17, 2019

Staying Fit for Duty in EMS

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As a profession, we are in a crisis. A first responder commits suicide every 4 days in the United States. The Illinois Fire Service Institute recently made news after publishing a report  on suicide and mental health awareness finding that “...about two in five [responders] contemplate suicide, with about one in ten actually attempting it.”

You don’t have to look far to see how suicide impacts first response agencies. The number of people who have lost colleagues, partners, family or friends is staggering. Talk about suicide awareness in this setting and you instantly hear a story of someone who was deeply affected by a loss in the first responder community.

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The first thing we must stress to our community is simple:

It’s OKAY to not be OKAY.

Dr. Zubin Damania, a UCSF/Stanford trained internal medicine physician and founder of Turntable Health (and known by many as ZDoggMD) recently posted a video on mental health in the healthcare system. In the video, he explains that responders and practitioners are suffering from mental fatigue, not burnout. His video on the topic can be seen here.

We need to start challenging the stigma associated with being a first responder, the stigma that says we have to stay tough, that we can’t let these calls affect us. We need to abolish the shameful feeling that we are “weak” or unable to do the job if we get caught up in what we see. Instead, we can provide resources and support that allows - and encourages - those in need to reach out. By doing this, we open the door to our brothers and sisters to ask for help without fear of shame or ridicule.

 

Check in with yourself - how do you feel?

When starting a shift, we don’t arrive exhausted, malnourished and hungover. When the shift is over and we’re done for the day, we would never leave without our gear. We aim to be ready to take care of our patients by first ensuring that we, as responders, are well-prepared and our equipment is ready to go.

Treat your mental and emotional health no different. Your mind is just as important as any other piece of equipment you may carry or use. Ensure that you are mentally prepared for your shift. This can not only work to save your patients life but your life as well.

 Yoga woman meditating and making a zen symbol with her hand

Capture the time you have, not the time you want

I get it. Schedules suck, vacation time is limited and your agency doesn’t believe in mental health days. What is in your control? Focus on the time you can capture.

  • Can you meditate for 10 min in the car before you walk into your house?
  • Can you practice box breathing for a few minutes between calls?
  • What about finding a half hour for some yoga? Here’s a great resource specifically for first responders.
  • Could you squeeze in a 10-minute walk either first thing in the morning, during a lunch break, or when you get home from work?
  • Laughter is still the best medicine. Funny animal videos, anyone?

Capture these little chunks of time throughout the day. You’ll be amazed at the benefits you’ll see.

 

Drink, eat, sleep

I know this sounds like a bad “Eat, Pray, Love” spin-off, but these are truly imperative first steps to ensuring a healthier you. When you find yourself stressed, despondent or infuriated, take a moment. Stop. Breathe. Have a glass of water, eat some food and get some rest.

These actions seem simple because they are. Simple, but critically important.

 

Ask for help…it’s out there

When we look at mental health against metaphors of physical health it gets easier to prove some points. Just like an illness, often some “you time” (self-care like getting some exercise, a good night’s sleep, having a good meal, a  hot shower, etc) can get you by.

When you’ve tried the simple things and you’re still feeling depressed, irritable or are having thoughts of self-harm...it is time to reach out to the professionals. Your life could depend on it.

Two male hands reaching out to one another, almost touching, in front of dark clear empty background wall concept

 

There are a number of resources available for you 24/7/365.

National Suicide Support Hotline: Call 1-800-273-8255

Crisis text hotline: Text “HOME” to 741741

911 Buddy Check: 205 356 2861

Uniformed Service Peer Support Council: uniformedhelp.org

ECHO FAST Hotline (for HEMS professionals): 1-833-AIR-FAST (1-833-247-3278)

 

Stay Fit for Duty

Being fit for duty isn’t just about physical fitness. It’s imperative that we treat our minds no different than we treat our bodies. We can overcome this crisis. We can all be Fit for Duty.

Want to know more? Register for James’ SUMMIT session: “Fit For Duty” today: 

 Register Now

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More About the Author:

James Boomhower

James Boomhower, BS, FP-C, NR-P, has been involved in EMS for nearly 15 years in a variety of health systems throughout New England. He currently functions in the role of Critical Care Transport Specialist-Paramedic/ Lead Peer Support Director with Boston Medflight of Bedford, Massachusetts and Crisis and Peer supporter for the ECHO FAST team. James’ passion for EMS education is realized through his position as an instructor for Distance CME’s online continuing education program. His desire to bring mental health awareness to the EMS arena has spurred him to create the Fit for Duty platform.