This interview was originally published as part of Time to Change's partnership with Metro.
What were your views on mental health problems prior to experiencing them yourself?
I hadn’t come into contact with anyone who had a mental illness in my family life, so I had no idea what the term ‘mental health problem’ really meant. Whenever the subject did come up, the conversation was usually pretty swift and uncomfortable.
Why was that?
Mental health was taboo so I never really spoke about it.
Do you think that is the still the case in your workplace?
Definitely. There is still a very strong stigma regarding mental health. A lot of paramedics take the ‘live with it and get on with it’ approach because they think they will let people down and be viewed as being weak if they reveal they have a mental health problem. I want people who are going through similar experiences to know that there is someone they can talk to and that there is a way out.
What exactly did you go through?
I was diagnosed with depression 15 or 16 years ago and was treated for that. Then, just over three years ago, my personality began to change dramatically.
What do you mean?
I was moody, I was down, I was being woken up by my dreams two or three times a night and I was having flashbacks throughout the day. It got to a point where I woke up angry because I was tired and knew these flashbacks were going to happen. When they did, I became tearful, angry and aggressive. I somehow managed to keep doing my job, but it was really awful.
What happened to improve things?
The colleague who I worked most closely with was brilliant. She used to keep an eye on me and go out of her way to pick me up whenever I was having a bad time. I also spoke to my manager and my doctor. My manager referred me for some counselling and my doctor referred me to a mental health specialist, who revealed my problems were actually related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Was there a specific incident that prompted the PTSD?
It related to a number of stressful events I had witnessed on the road; small things that built up and up inside me until it got the point where I couldn’t cope anymore.
How much did talking to your colleague help?
It probably saved my life. Having the chance to open up to someone was the beginning of a process that ended with me being correctly diagnosed with PTSD and treated appropriately. Before then, I was unable to speak to family or friends. Why, I don’t know. But I was stuck in a vicious circle of darkness that destroyed my marriage, terminated some other close relationships and led me to contemplate suicide.
How were you treated for your mental health problem?
I did three months of EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy. It has come over from America, where they use it to treat military veterans who are suffering from PTSD. It is the weirdest sensation I have ever had, but it worked.
Are mental health problems common in the ambulance service?
It is a multi-faceted role that calls you to be many things. You have to be a healer, like in the TV shows, and take the wars, strife, stress and complaints that come with the job. That’s why I am doing all I can to remove the fear that stops my colleagues saying, ‘Hold on, I have a problem.’
Do you think talking more about mental health reduces this fear?
Definitely. When I first started, the workload wasn’t as great as it is now, so I had the opportunity to sit down and talk to colleagues over a cup of tea in the mess room. Today, the demands of the job mean there is very little opportunity to do that, but my aim is to make conversations about mental wellbeing commonplace – not just in my workplace, but everywhere.
Has anyone talked with you about their mental health problems?
A few people have. One colleague asked me to explain what I’d been through. I told him about the trouble I’d had with my sleep patterns and he revealed that he had experienced dreams that woke him up in the middle of the night too. I told him it might be worth speaking to an expert and you could see the cogs starting to turn in his head.
Have you seen any changes in your workplace as a result of your openness?
I’m not sure I can take any direct credit, but we now have an Employee Wellbeing Adviser and a new group looking into health and wellbeing. Things are definitely improving, but they could still be better so I am going to keep on talking.