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Ada County Paramedics Cope with Internal Tragedy After Two Commit Suicide

Sorrow spurs new emphasis on mental health

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Janny Wing usually works on Wednesdays, but on March 18, she took the day off for a board meeting at Opera Idaho. That afternoon, she was sitting at her computer when her phone buzzed with a text message from one of her colleagues at Ada County Paramedics, where she has worked as an EMT paramedic for nearly 10 years.

"It was upsetting," Wing said. "I'm not an emotional person, but it hit me pretty hard."

She called her husband, also an EMT with Ada County Paramedics, asking if he'd heard. He had. That afternoon, her colleague, Brian Peterson, committed suicide in his home.

It's wasn't the first time Wing had gotten a text like that. Only six months earlier, on Sept. 6, 2014, while shopping for new wine glasses, she got a similar call. Her work partner, Donna Sellers, had killed herself.

Wing felt complete disbelief. She saw Sellers only a week before, and Sellers seemed fine.

"Nothing would have made me think she was even sad," Wing said. "Hindsight is 20/20 but even in hindsight, as a co-worker, nothing from either Brian or Donna would have made me think they were suicidal."

When Wing first heard about Sellers, the disbelief took a long time to fade into sadness, but when she got the text about Peterson, "I skipped the shock and went straight to the crying. I'm not even a crier."

Two suicides in the past six months have left Ada County Paramedics reeling and uncertain on how to prevent more.

What Does It Take?
Wing has a bouncy personality complete with an easy laugh and a big smile. She is in her mid-30s and she's an avid skier, hiker and whitewater rafter. She's up for just about anything if it's outdoors.

But when she goes to work, she becomes—in her words—"bossy." Her co-workers describe her as a "take-no-shit hard-ass" and when calls get tough, the saying goes, "Channel your inner Janny."

"I have this picture on my wall at my house. It's a picture of a duck on a lake." Wing said. "The thing I think about all the time at work is being a duck on the water. Underneath, his legs are paddling really fast, but on the top, all you see is calm. That's what I really try to maintain—that even though my brain is going, I make sure that I'm calm on the outside. Calm, cool and collected."

When dealing with aggressive drug users that need to be restrained and sedated, handling wrecks involving multiple cars in the middle of the night and bringing people out of hysteria, that calm, cool collectedness is key. She often reminds herself the emergency she's dealing with is not her emergency.

Wing identifies herself first and foremost as a paramedic. The "About Me" section on her Facebook page is sparse: "I live and work in Boise, Idaho. I am a paramedic and I love my job."

When she leaves her station at the end of the shift, she makes an effort to leave her work behind, too. She doesn't socialize much with other paramedics outside of work and she keeps work-talk to a minimum with her husband. When she's off the clock she takes her two big mutts, Max and Moose, into the foothills or snowshoeing.

She said that it's important to keep herself happy and healthy while working such an intense and high-stress job.

Still, her colleagues' suicides haunt her.

"These are people who do my job," Wing said. "They're standing next to me, they're in my age bracket, they've been doing this as long as I have. So, what does it take to go from where I am to get to where they were? Is it that easy? Is it a cliff you fall off and you're just down there? "

After losing both Sellers and Peterson, Wing has developed a hyper-vigilance for the mental well being of her colleagues. If any of her co-workers go on rough calls, she's the first to ask, "You OK?"

"I think I'm a pretty active, young, healthy badass," she said, "but what does it take to get from here to there? I don't know."

'I Don't Get It'
A few days after Peterson's death, Ada County Paramedics held an organization-wide meeting to talk about it. The emergency service has 127 employees, 100 of whom are paramedics and EMTs working in 13 stations across the county.

The meeting was tearful and raw, according to Ada County Paramedics Public Information Officer Hadley Mayes.

"It was really important for us to come together and speak about this because it's such a hush-hush topic," Mayes said. "That's a huge problem. If we're afraid to speak out loud about [suicide], that's just going to perpetuate it. This is something that needs to be addressed head-on."

Exactly how to address it, though, isn't clear. The county offers work-life balance programs that include no-cost therapy for any and all county employees—if they decide to see a counselor, their meetings are private and not reported to supervisors.

While there are no hard numbers on the rate of suicide among paramedics, anecdotal evidence suggests its occurrence tends to be higher among first responders than the general public. According to Mayes, police, firefighters and EMTs have higher rates of suicide, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and divorce.

"It makes sense," she said. "Look at what they see every day."