About one in five paramedics has reported suffering from stress, depression or anxiety, with insiders warning of a growing reliance on drugs to cope.
Leaked Ambulance Victoria data reveals that about 20 per cent of staff whose mental health was recently assessed by the organisation said they have psychological problems ranging from mild to extreme.
While Ambulance Victoria says the trend is in line with the general population, a number of paramedics have told Fairfax Media of colleagues turning to prescription drugs – including the narcotic painkiller fentanyl – because they’re struggling to deal with their problems.
”As a paramedic, you know you’re going to see dead bodies, you know you’re going to be telling family members that someone has died, and often you can get a bad run where you’re doing several horrific jobs at the one time,” said one senior source, who did not wish to be named.
The data was based on 767 psychological assessments given to staff as part of an Ambulance Victoria counselling program. According to the figures, 183 out of the 767 respondents experienced mild to extreme stress (including 14 in the ”extreme” category). A further 182 reported mild to extreme depression (21 extreme cases) and 149 reported mild to extreme anxiety (27 extreme cases).
The union says the figures should ring alarm bells, particularly amid reports suggesting that 10 paramedics have died by suicide in the past four years. Earlier this year, a 49-year-old female paramedic was also found dead by colleagues at a suburban ambulance station, which the union linked to a suspected fentanyl overdose.
Labor parliamentary secretary for health Wade Noonan said the figures were ”not just a reflection on the difficult work that paramedics do, rather they’re a broader statement about the deteriorating culture within our ambulance service”.
”The Napthine government won’t reverse the slide in the ambulance service until it addresses the sickness among our paramedics,” he said.
But Ambulance Victoria general manager Tony Walker said paramedics were given a lot of support, including a peer support program, a psychological counselling unit and a chaplaincy service.
”Our staff are tracking similarly, if not slightly better than the general population for depression, anxiety and stress,” he added.
The data comes as the Napthine government tries to end its long-standing stoush with the ambulance union over wages and work conditions. The union has been offered a 12 per cent pay rise over three years, but has so far rejected it.
This article first appeared on ‘The Age, Victoria’ on 8 December 2013.