One of the mentally challenging professions out there has to be that of a paramedic. Cumulative stressors and trauma can have lasting effects on individuals who became paramedics to try to make a difference. 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, they were 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 be outside, but I don’t think I realized until I looked back on it how important the mountains were to him. I’m not even sure he did. I think even after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, he was able to find a level of peace through the outdoors.”
Matt learned early on that being outdoors and going hard on a bicycle, whether racing in a 24 hour XC race or a triathlon, a downhill or Enduro race, calmed his jitters and allowed him to focus, a strategy he used regularly to deal with personal and professional challenges.
“I think we are designed to be outside and we spend far too much time inside. Being outside and moving through these huge landscapes- whether on foot, on a bicycle or on skis – really gives you a perspective as to who you are in the grand scheme of things. When you’re in a landscape like this, it puts into perspective all the petty things that you think are important. And whether it is dropping into a race run or just a casual ride with friends, the focus I find on a bicycle is incredible. My mind is still, the world becomes breath and movement and decisions and line choices. The benefit of doing difficult things or things that scare you physically is that when you push yourself to overcome them, you can use that mentality 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 few months like nothing had happened. After all, being a paramedic, he was used to illnesses and death.
“It wasn’t a so called ‘Big call’ that broke me – 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, and I broke down and started crying. I hadn’t cried in years, and I cried for hours. I remember being angry with myself and thinking how ridiculous it was, that this shouldn’t be affecting me as a medical professional. I felt that as a first responder, I had no right to feel these feelings, I felt that if I admitted to anyone that I was struggling I would be disqualified from being a paramedic.
I remember getting home being really angry and withdrawn, and I became angry all the time and I made some bad life decisions. I started having repetitive nightmares, insomnia, and inability to focus. 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 normal to grieve when you lose a loved one. It’s part of the human process.”
During the following months, he went on riskier alpine climbs, and took big risks ice climbing 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.
“Even in affluent North America, life can be challenging. Everybody has their shit. The experiences from your childhood, the events 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 your 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 conversation needs 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 wasn’t much direction on how to be healthy mentally, in society in general but especially for first responders. But much has changed since I started as a paramedic 15 years ago. Back then it was a ‘suck it up and move on’ mentality when it came to personal or professional struggles. And we continue to see the fallout – in 2017, 48 first responders committed suicide in Canada alone. We now have a peer support program at work, which I have become part of. It’s a relatively 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 struggling just need help negotiating challenges of their personal and professional life. That’s what I’m becoming passionate about. I continue to find it challenging to be still for long, and continue to have really dark days. But the more I open up to others, the more I find that we all are the same, working through our challenges.”
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!