CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - The people we rely on to save us in an emergency could be facing a mental health crisis themselves.
Cleveland paramedics, EMTs and dispatchers are fighting the city for PTSD support.
Cleveland 19 spoke to three Cleveland EMS paramedics who asked we conceal their identities in fear of retribution from the city for speaking out.
We also spoke to a former Cleveland EMS commander who says he was at the brink of suicide.
Paramedics and PTSD
Combined, these paramedics have 50 years of experience. They asked we call them Norman, Sam and Jason.
Sam has been diagnosed with PTSD.
He still thinks about that baby he tried to save, but who passed away.
“I actually started having nightmares. And the nightmare that would always flash was that little girl,” he said.
They say taking care of themselves is not part of their training.
“They don’t teach you to tell the mother that a 1-year-old is dead from a gunshot wound to the head,” Sam said.
“You aren’t taught how you’re supposed to cope, to decompress. How you’re supposed to go home, and live your life after you leave work,” Jason said.
“Nobody knows how dark human nature actually is until you have a front row seat to the whole thing,” Norman said.
Despite everything they’ve seen, these paramedics all love their jobs.
They just want to be sure they’re at their best when you need them the most.
“We need mental health help out here. There has to be something. We all think it’s time,” they said.
A former commander’s story
Mark is a former Cleveland EMS Commander. He worked at the agency from 1981 to 2011.
He was an EMT, a dispatcher and a paramedic before he became a supervisor.
Mark asked we conceal his identity on camera.
He'll never forget when the stress of the job started boiling over.
“I was suicidal at one point. The accumulation of everything I'd done and seen and been through, and I just saw no other way out. It was just a really, really dark place,” he said.
“I was working at headquarters at the time, at lunchtime my plan was to--I had a train schedule, go down to Lakeside, I think it’s 20th or 22nd or something I don’t remember exactly, and I was going to drive in front of a train,” Mark said.
But something stopped him. Instead, Mark was able to ask for help.
He says he was then diagnosed with PTSD.
“I jump very easily at noises and so forth, and I don’t know why that is, but it’s a very real illness,” he said.
A new study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found more first responders died by suicide than died in the line of duty in 2017.
Another study by the University of Phoenix found 10 percent of EMS personnel have been diagnosed with PTSD.
“You're not supposed to show any emotion. What happens is, things accumulate. You have a bad call, and then things accumulate, you have another bad call,” he said.
He feels like his mental health concerns were not addressed during his time at Cleveland EMS.
“If you have a mental health issue you're on your own. People are compassionate at first but then when you don't have a visible injury or illness or something you can put your finger on, you're expected to come back to work and to be all smile and function,” Mark said.
All of these years later, Mark was shocked to hear there is still no PTSD protocol in place.
He worries if something doesn't change soon, workers' lives could be at risk.
“It's just a very toxic environment, and it's unhealthy and the turnover rate is incredibly high as you probably know. I'm afraid that someone's going to commit suicide or people overdose,” Mark said.
He loved his job, and he still cares about the people and the place he worked for.
“EMS folks commit their lives to taking care of people they don't even know. And I mean, I don't know that there's anything more noble than that, but they don't get any support,” Mark said.
Fighting for PTSD support
The Cleveland Association of Rescue Employees (CARE) represents about 300 dispatchers, paramedics and EMTs with Cleveland EMS.
They want the city to recognize PTSD in their contract, outlining protocol for handling mental trauma they suffer on the job.
Cleveland 19 found police and fire have protocol in place to respond to PTSD, but Cleveland EMS does not.
In most big cities, EMS is combined with the fire department. In Cleveland, it's a separate division.
“We maintenance our trucks, we maintenance our equipment, we maintenance the radios, the stretchers that we push these patients around on. But there's no maintenance for us as people who go out and do this job,” Sam said.
Cleveland 19 checked with several third-party EMS providers across the country to see whether they have a policy or protocol in place for handling PTSD and mental health. Here is what we found:
NEW ORLEANS EMS
-They have no written policy, but a spokesperson says it is “the number one project on their list.”
-They're working to set up peer support groups and physicians.
WAKE COUNTY EMS (RALEIGH-DURHAM, N.C.)
-They have no written policy.
-They teach a session on PTSD, offer a peer support team available 24/7 by phone, and have a psychologist available.
-They have a peer support team, offer 24-hour support and access to counseling and clinical services.
-According to the union contract, the city allocates $6,000 a year to fund the peer support program.
-According to a spokesperson, Boston EMS spends a minimum of $175,000 a year for providing personnel with full mental health services.
HENNEPIN EMS (HENNEPIN COUNTY, MN)
-They are in the process of developing a peer support program.
-EMS workers can get help through the fire and police departments via the Employee Assistance Unit.
-They can see a doctor through the Cleveland Police Department.
In a statement, the city of Cleveland responded:
“The City of Cleveland takes the health, safety and welfare of our employees very seriously. The Department of Public Safety has resources to assist police, fire and EMS first responders in dealing with the unique nature of their jobs. Additionally, first responders have access to the same broad host of resources available to all City employees to assist them in managing the stresses of their personal and professional lives. Past and current EMS employees routinely take advantage of all of the free resources provided by the City. Due to on-going litigation, the City has no further comment.”
CARE recently started a Peer-to-Peer support group.
They’re also asking the city for one employee already on staff to act part-time as a PTSD counselor.