Ambulance friends and family - how to support someone's mental wellbeing

A guide for friends and family of ambulance service personnel on how to support someone's mental wellbeing.

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Taryn Ozorio
Posted on 24/01/2011

Tom and Catherine’s* story

Tom and his wife Catherine share about how they cope when Tom has problems with his mental health.

Tom

I have been in the ambulance service for 14 years: 6 years as an ambulance technician and 8 years as a paramedic.

My work history until then had been warehouse working; very monotonous and not very interesting. I decided that I wanted to do a job that was interesting, stimulating and varied from day to day.

I really do think I have a great job. I get to meet a variety of different people, some of whom are extremely interesting to talk to. I also work with a great bunch of people who really do work hard. No two days are the same and you get the chance to make a difference in people’s lives.

The flip side is that you attend some extremely stressful, upsetting and at times disturbing situations.

My first encounter with mental health problems occurred after approximately six years in the service. It began with the occasional nightmare, which became more regular, eventually getting to the point where I did not want to go to sleep.

I did not tell my wife to begin with, as I thought that things would get better. We were sat eating dinner one day when I said to her, “I think I need a bit of help.” I then explained what had been going on.

My wife put me in touch with the hospital staff support service, who were extremely helpful. I was diagnosed with PTSD. Following a course of counselling sessions I was feeling a lot better. During the sessions I carried on working and nobody apart from my wife knew.

Several years later I had another episode of PTSD. Unfortunately, the ambulance service had stopped using the hospital staff support service. They were now trying to deal with staff issues ‘in-house’ initially, before deciding if counselling would be available. This led to a substantial amount of time off work, withdrawing from friends and family, lack of self-confidence and medications being prescribed.

During this episode, friends and family became aware of my problem. At first I was incredibly embarrassed and ashamed. However, everyone was totally supportive and understanding and have been to this day, for which I am very thankful. 

Throughout my problems, my wife has always been there. She has realised when I am starting to ‘go downhill’ a bit, sometimes before I realise it myself.

She knows when to ‘push’ me and also when to give me a bit of space. I am incredibly grateful for her help and support.

If you think somebody you know needs some help, ask them. It may be that they are embarrassed or too scared to ask. Letting somebody know that you are there for them can be a big help. Don’t be offended if they speak to friends or colleagues at work first, they may be trying to protect you from how they are feeling.

With patience, help and support we can beat anything.   

Catherine

Tom and I have been together for 11 years and married for nearly 8. When we met, Tom was an ambulance technician; he qualified as a paramedic before we married.

I have been a nurse for 20 years. I am now a haematology nurse specialist and have worked within cancer care for my whole career.

I am generally pretty well in terms of my own mental health. I have had episodes of depression related to my dad’s cancer diagnosis and his death on my own ward. I had both postnatal depression and PTSD from birth trauma after the difficult birth of our lovely son who is now five years old. I had eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) treatment for this successfully. I have also had this treatment for my own work-related PTSD.

I am lucky enough to have been able to access support and treatment when needed through staff support at work.

Due to my work and experiences, I am probably more aware than most of the risks of Tom’s work, in relation to distress and the development of PTSD and other mental health issues. Over the years we have been together, Tom has been ill with three distinct episodes of PTSD and has underlying depression, but this is currently well-managed.

The first episode of PTSD I remember Tom having developed followed a couple of difficult jobs. I was less aware of what the problem was at this time, but he realised he was struggling and sought help. At this time, his employers provided quick and easy access to treatment. Later, this help was taken away.

The second time he developed problems, there was no access to help through work and it took many months and eventually private treatment to help him. During this second episode, he became very unwell. I was expecting our son and I finally realised what was wrong after he broke down following a near accident with us all in the car, on a motorway due to his lack of concentration.

When Tom’s mental health deteriorates, he becomes very withdrawn, has disturbed sleep, is constantly tired and disengages from everyone and everything. I also notice that he drinks more alcohol to try to relax.

These times are hard and leave me feeling lonely and sad. It also makes me feel overwhelmed by all I have to do as a working mum to keep everything going, whilst he is unable to be involved. It can be very frustrating.

When these episodes recur, I go from being proud of what he does to resenting the effect his job has on him and us as a family. Seeing him distancing himself and verbally snapping at me and our son hurts. This is usually the tipping point for me, where I move from giving him space to come to terms with events, to confronting him, and encouraging him to get some professional help.

The repeated episodes of PTSD mean we both know now which jobs will probably cause him problems. He talks about it all much more freely now; hopefully because he knows I understand. He talks about the difficult jobs and tells me when he finds them causing him problems. Despite this it still reaches some sort of head where he finally realises he can’t manage without help. The lead up to this point is hard for us all, every time.

How do I help? I listen and I give him time to talk when he comes home from a difficult day. I recognise that he needs space but also recognise when he needs help to identify when this tips into detachment. These conversations are not easy. It is difficult to find that balance but ignoring the signs is not an option.

I have read about and understand PTSD and depression. As a result, I am less frightened of them, less resentful of the behaviours they cause, and more able to help and support Tom.

My advice to others would be to accept that PTSD and other mental health problems are common amongst people doing this job. That may seem very negative to some. To me it is realistic and has enabled me and Tom to do our incredibly satisfying jobs for as long as we have, remaining on the whole happy and well.

I feel it is essential for anyone working in the ambulance service and their relatives and spouses to understand the effects the job has on wellbeing.

I would encourage everyone to talk about the difficult jobs and the problems they cause; to know where to get proper professional help and to ensure that they face the problems and deal with them when they occur.

I think it should be a part of paramedics training to understand and recognise the problems in themselves and others and I think ambulance trusts should do far more to support their staff.

 

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.


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