One of the mentally hard profession out there has to be paramedic. Repeated stress and trauma can have lasting effects on individuals who’s only desire is to save lives. That objective can be challenged when balancing personal and professional life becomes harder. For Matthew Smith, years of trial and error have been required for him to figure out ways to cope with it.
Without even realizing it, his father was the first one to point him in the right direction. The adventures they went on together when Matt was younger are some of the happiest memories he has of his father.
“I think after he passed away, when I looked back on the good times we had together, it was almost always in the outdoors. And I realized I’m quite similar to him and that I needed this, I realized how important it was to him. I knew he liked to do outdoor things, but I don’t think I realized until I looked back on it how important it was to him. I’m not even sure he did. I think even through my dad finding cancer, he was able to find a level of peace through the outdoors.”
Matt learned early on that being outdoors and going hard calmed his jitters and eased his mind, a strategy he used regularly to deal with personal and professional struggles.
“I think we are designed to be outside and we spend far too much time inside. Being outside and moving through these huge landscapes really gives you a perspective as to who you are in the grand scheme of things. I think we’re designed to be outside. When you’re in a landscape like this, it puts into perspective all the petty things that you think are important. The benefits of doing difficult things or things that scare you, you push yourself, you overcome it and you can use that in life when you’re faced with the things that challenge or scare you.”
What should have been a wonderful tool became a problem. When faced with adversity, Matt went hard not to help him cope but to avoid coping, and his inability to remain still started causing personal problems. But like everything in life you try to avoid, it comes back and hits you in the face when you least expect it. When his father lost his battle against cancer, Matt remained stoic, going through the following eight months like nothing ever happened. After all, being a paramedic, he was used to illnesses and death.
“I was interacting with a patient at work who was a chronic cancer patient. We weren’t really able to do anything medically except provide pain control. The patient’s wife just grabbed me, hugged me and started crying. I broke down and started crying and I remember being angry with myself and thinking how ridiculous it was, that this shouldn’t be affecting me as a medical professional. I remember getting home being really angry. I was just angry all the time and I made some bad life decisions. I started having nightmares, not sleeping. Work and personal life collided and I didn’t have the understanding to be able to talk through the process of what I was feeling. I didn’t understand it was ok to grieve when you lose a parent. It’s part of the human process.”
During the following months, he went on riskier alpine climbs as an attempt to not deal with what he was feeling. It’s a challenge to learn how to stay mentally well while you learn how to negotiate the challenges of life. For Matt, the outdoors and the community of people around it was a huge part of that, but he also had to learn how to do the work on himself. Being capable of introspection is key to that process and is especially important for first responders.
“Everybody has their shit. The shit from your childhood, the shit from bad things that happen to you in your life. The problem with being a first responder is you’re exposed to those things over and over and over. Whatever you trigger is, you can’t just put that out of your mind. You’re exposed to those things because you see people in the same situations. You have to learn how to negotiate that. That’s where our profession needs to go, focussing on mental wellness, focussing on tools to be mentally healthy. And just allowing people to have conversations about it and that has happened and it’s good. The talk has to be about mental wellness.”
Thankfully, a lot of improvements have been made. Specific workplaces and society in general have come long ways in the last couple of years when it comes to opening up about mental health. The discussion is easier and help is available for people suffering but there is still lots of room for improvement, especially when it comes to prevention.
“There is not a lot of direction on how to be healthy mentally, in society in general but specifically as a first responder. I’m part of a peer support program at work. It’s a new thing. We’re trying to support people who are struggling at work, understanding that some will legitimately be diagnosed with PTSD and will need medical attention, but the vast majority of people seeking help just need help negotiating challenges of their personal and professional life. That’s what I’m becoming passionate about.”
Through his personal journey, Matt has found some answers. He now hopes to be a positive force and help other paramedics find theirs, in the outdoors or not!