Jennifer Pedvin had been a paramedic for more than a decade when she picked up the phone to a support service and whispered: “I think I have suicidal thoughts.”
She had experienced the joy of delivering a baby and the relief of saving a person’s life.
But Ms Pedvin, now an intensive care paramedic, also knew first-hand that it was a line of work that often came at a cost.
For her, that price has been an “exhausting” battle with post-traumatic stress disorder after a diagnosis two years ago.
Ms Pedvin used a powerful speech to urge her ACT Emergency Services colleagues and their families to start a conversation about an “epidemic” of mental illness during a ceremony at the National Portrait Gallery on Tuesday.
She told the crowd, which included the agency’s senior leadership team, that her 15-year career showed ambulance work came with “extreme highs, extreme lows and everything in between”.
“Seeing the look of absolute gratitude on someone’s face is a payment to the soul, to a part of you that you never really knew needed payment. A simply amazing feeling.”
But she acknowledged there were also parts of the job that haunted workers, and her experience with mental illness was not unique.
“It’s been a hard slog getting through it, and I’m not finished yet.
“I am fortunate, however, to have an amazing treatment team now and the support of family and my brothers and sisters in green.”
Ms Pedvin said emergency services work was a “mental battlefield” with exposure to repeated traumas that acted as “kindling in the brain”.
She told her colleagues it was OK to feel as if they couldn’t cope with tougher aspects of the job and they should let each other know there was no weakness in admitting their work was tough.
At first she felt too terrified of being stigmatised to ask for help and she encouraged workers to make use of the ESA’s support services.
“Remember that in these times, your brain isn’t your friend, and is making the worst out of everything.
“Something is broken, and it can be fixed.”
ACT Emergency Services commissioner Dominic Lane was among workers who praised Ms Pedvin for sharing her story and said she was an example of an emergency services worker who had spent many years helping others at a personal expense.
He said supports in place for ESA staff and volunteers were adequate but he was always open to improving services and programs offered to staff.
Ms Pedvin was among 49 long-serving staff and volunteers from the ACT’s emergency services recognised at the 2015 National Medal award ceremony.
Together, the recipients across ambulance, fire and emergency response had clocked up more than 1000 hours of service.
ACT Fire and Rescue volunteer Noel Bisset was recognised for 45 years of service.
Thirteen men and women also received a Humanitarian Overseas Service Medal for their work in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011.
This article first appeared on ‘Canberra Times’ on 1 December 2015.