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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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Helping first responders has been Leschinski's passion for 40 years but took on a new urgency after 9/11, when he lived in New York City.

"See, out here, 9/11 was a TV show. For us, it was real. We could see the smoke," he said.

"When it happened, I realized this was a population [first responders] that needed someone who could understand them without judging them," Leschinski added. "9/11 got me to think about who's taking care of us. We forget those people. Who helps them when they're really struggling?"

Leschinski said the people who see him aren't pathological. They just need to adjust and learn coping skills that will allow them to keep getting in the rig, call after call, day after day.

First, Weston makes a gentle request that a paramedic see Leschinski after a hard call. If Leschinski doesn't hear from the paramedic, Weston will urge again. Appointments like these are mandatory.

Once they're in, Leschinski asks about the call and tries to find out why it was more troubling than normal.

"It's not the blood and gore," he said. "Somewhere, there's an Achilles' heel. Everybody has one. I try to root around and find out why this is your Achilles' heel."

For Weston, it was calls involving little girls. For Wing, she hates to see dogs left behind when their owners are in crisis.

In his sessions, Leschinski urges his patients to "get back to the healthy things." Go outside, play with your kids. Please, please, don't drink alcohol, that'll only make everything worse. He helps them build a recovery system.

A few days later he schedules a follow-up appointment to see how they're doing. If everything seems good, he OK's them to go back to work. He said he never saw Peterson or Sellers, though.

"I think that a lot of people can slip through the cracks," he said. "There's always going to be somebody, no matter what you do. There's always going to be someone."

Backpacks
Weston believes a fundamental shift is needed in what it means to be a paramedic, but the stigma of seeking therapy or counseling is strong.
Quiet, focused and intelligent, Peterson was part of Ada County Paramedics' Special Operations Team and a certified rope rescue technician.
  • Quiet, focused and intelligent, Peterson was part of Ada County Paramedics' Special Operations Team and a certified rope rescue technician.

Wing can relate to that. She said it's not just mental health problems first responders avoid. A few years ago, she was skiing at Bogus Basin and got a concussion.

"I don't remember any of it, but my friends said I kept saying, 'Do not call the ambulance.' Being a patient in the back of an ambulance was the last thing I wanted," she said. "I wasn't even thinking clearly, but I did not want to be in the ambulance. I did not want to be on the patient side of things."

To help break down such barriers, Rayne has a spiel he occasionally gives to Ada County EMS and paramedics.

"Each of us is wearing a backpack," he said to his organization at the meeting held after Peterson's death.

"Every time you go out on a call, you're putting a little bit of weight in your backpack. Eventually, that backpack gets pretty full. You can buy a bigger backpack, but all you're going to do is carry around more weight with you.

"We're trying to take some of the weight out of that backpack," he said. "Help us help you unload some of that backpack so you can keep going in the future."

In order to continue emptying each "backpack," Weston and Rayne are looking into different peer support models, so that if paramedics feel intimidated or embarrassed talking to superiors they can turn to each other instead and still get the help they need.

"We have to change what it means to be a paramedic," Weston said. "We have to change the identity piece that keeps you from getting the help that you need with mental health. It's no different than getting the help you need with cardiology or anything else."

One organization working hard to change the perceived barriers to seeking help is the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline. ISPH Executive Director John Reusser said he is starting to see progress in that regard.

ISPH finished its first quarter this year with the highest call volume since it went live in 2012. The hotline received 1,123 calls January-March. Reusser sees that as a positive thing, showing people are becoming more aware and more willing to call in times of crisis.

Reusser strongly disagrees with the idea that people will always fall through the cracks.

"It'll take a big cultural change," he said, "but we're working on a Zero Suicide initiative."

He said research shows paramedics may have a higher rate of suicide because seeing traumatic experiences can decrease a person's resistance to harming themselves over time. It's a phenomenon called "acquired capability for self-harm."

"Just being exposed to the pain and trauma of others increases a person's risk for self harm and their ability to do it," Reusser said. "There is a tendency in the community of first responders to think they're bulletproof, so they are less likely to ask for help and support. We need to change that."

Despite all the trauma and hardships first responders face, Weston said the job is worth it.

"That little kid that fell in the hot tub, she was dead. She was gray, flaccid; put her on the monitor, flatline—dead," he said. "Thirty minutes later, she's grabbing onto my finger as we pull into St. Luke's. There's nothing cooler in life. It doesn't exist."

Ada County Paramedics will continue to look into resources to keep their employees healthy and happy. No one can stand to see another incident like Peterson's or Sellers'.

The EMS organization has also decided to use this as an opportunity to remind other Idahoans that help is out there.

Ada County Paramedics teamed up with ISPH and created a public service announcement for 94.9 The River, 100.3 X Rocks, 105.1 Variety Rock and 107.1 KHits.

"We want to use this horrible tragedy as a platform to speak openly and frankly about suicide and getting help if you feel yourself slipping," Mayes said.

At the end of the PSA, a voice states, "In the memory of Ada County Paramedic Brian Peterson."

If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or suicidal crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK.