The union representing paramedics in Western Australia is demanding more trauma counselling following the reported suicide of two of its members.
A woman has written to the ABC saying a male paramedic with a young family and a 22-year-old woman have taken their lives in the past week.
She said many paramedics at St John, including a member of her family, have severe depression but are reluctant to seek support for fear of losing their jobs.
The head of the United Voice union, Pat O’Donnell, said it was an unacceptable situation.
“There needs to be an acknowledgment that there is a problem and that more does need to be done and to start looking at what can be put in place to really assist the paramedics to really improve the situation,” he said.
“This is an important issue. I think the general feeling among paramedics is that there’s not enough there for them to really deal with the situations that they face.”
Mr O’Donnell said the impact on paramedics varied but they needed extra assistance.
“St John has a certain amount of resources or schemes in place, but I think the results show that what’s currently in place is not enough, and there needs to be more focus on the health and wellbeing of the paramedics,” he said.
“What we know about paramedics is that the impact on them varies and not everyone goes out to seek help, so I think there’s probably a need to look at what can be put in place, what networks can be put in place that allow people to have more support that what they currently have.
“Overall I think people (paramedics) feel there’s a general lack of support in many circumstances.”
Confronting ‘aftermath’ faced by paramedics
Kerry, who retired two years ago after 22 years working in Perth with St John Ambulance, told 720 ABC Perth that paramedics saw everything.
“We can go to a fatal traffic accident and moments later a car load of family members turn up,” she said.
“You’ve then got to deal with the family members and trying to console them and control them as well.
“The same goes for a house where someone is seriously ill or injured or they pass away at the house, we have to deal with the aftermath of that. You are the first responders.”
Kerry said in her experience there was very little support for paramedics.
“Sometimes we might get a quick phone call to see if we were OK, but in the main we didn’t,” she said.
Kerry attended the ambulance call out to Gemma Thom who died from a drug overdose after the Big Day Out several years ago.
“It turned out that it was a friend’s daughter but I didn’t know that at the time,” she said.
“It just hits home when you find out it’s a friend’s child that you are dealing with.
“This was very, very tragic. It was an awful situation to be in and to know there was nothing you could do.”
The former paramedic said lots of jobs have stayed with her.
“When I am sitting down with my family at night and I watch the TV, and they flash up the story of Gemma Thom, it just hits you like a sledgehammer,” she said.
“It brings all those emotions back. Did I do enough, could I have done more? I suffer from anxiety and depression in varying degrees.”
“I really loved my work, and I know a lot of ambos feel the same. They are all passionate about what they do but I think there is a lack of support,” she said.
“I feel that St John’s should have help available, even when people have retired.
“People shouldn’t have to see and do what we did. We chose to do that and I don’t regret one moment. I just think there should be more support and more opportunity to deal with how things affect you.”
‘Stressful situations’ dealt with on daily basis
Mr O’Donnell said the problem was not limited to paramedics.
“We know that the people who take the phone calls, the communication officers, also report having similar difficulties,” he said.
“They are dealing with very stressful situations and are often on the phone to people that are dealing with tragic circumstances.
“You’ve got to remember they are doing this day-in, day-out, so this could have a dramatic impact.”
The union said it needed to be recognised that there was a problem.
“I think what’s currently in place works for some, but not all. There’s not enough proactive support for the paramedics,” said Mr O’Donnell.
“I wouldn’t say anyone has the answer on what needs to be done.
“I think this is a complex problem, but I think the starting point is that there needs to be an acknowledgement that there is a problem and that more needs to be done.”
In a statement St John Ambulance WA CEO Tony Ahern said the organisation’s 6,000 staff and volunteers had access to an extensive range or professional wellbeing and support services.
“About 18 months ago, the organisation recognised the need to enhance the services available to our people and has made significant investments and progress to date,” he said.
“As a result our people can access these services to assist in dealing with stress, managing psychological first aid and mental health.”
Those services include 24-hour counselling and treatment service, a staff chaplain and wellbeing and support team, as well as clinical psychologists with expertise in emergency services, trauma and grief.
This article first appeared on ‘ABC’ on 25 November 2014.