Of all the skills we’re called upon to wield without adequate training, care for psychiatric complaints tops the list. In particular, it’s a rare shift when you don’t handle a person — whether on the initial emergency response or a subsequent interfacility transfer — who has thought about, or even attempted to commit suicide.
Probably because these patients aren’t very medically exciting and can be challenging to deal with (due to varying degrees of cooperativeness), many of us aren’t big fans. We also tend to have a cynically individualistic sort of streak, which says that deep down, patients are responsible for themselves. If someone wants to be healthy and they get unlucky, we’ll help out. But if they can’t be bothered to try, we can’t be bothered either, and if they’re actively trying to hurt themselves, surely we have better things to do than interfere with natural selection.
But before we throw stones, we should probably understand the disease we’re discussing. Just like you can’t treat CHF without grasping its pathophysiology, properly treating the suicidal patient — or even deciding not to care — demands knowledge before judgment.
Depression itself is hard to grasp from the outside. This easy walkthrough may shed some light, but if you haven’t been there, you probably shouldn’t pretend you understand it. Nevertheless, it’s one of those conditions that invites amateur opinions, because it seems like the sort of thing we all know something about.
Maybe depression is too loosey-goosey; maybe it’s better if we stick to concrete facts, yeah? And there’s nothing more concrete than suicide. Let’s talk about suicide.
Start by reading through this article at the Daily Beast. It’s long, but it’s real good, and you may start to change your mind about a few things by the end.
For instance, in 2010, in the developed world where we have good statistics, suicide killed more people in the prime of their life (ages 15–49) than anything else. Read that again. Of all the terrible insults we study and treat, from gunshots to heart attacks, car crashes to cancer, suicide was more deadly than every single one. Over a hundred thousand suicide deaths that year. Almost a million across all age ranges. Every murder, every war, every natural disaster you read about in 2010 — throw them all together, and they still don’t equal the number of suicides. There were probably even more that weren’t reported, and even that’s just the successful suicides, of course; those that were attempted but didn’t quite succeed make up a much larger group, perhaps twenty-five times larger. (Yes, 25 times.) And there are more and more every year.
When we talk about CPR, we often talk about quality of life. When a 98-year-old bed-bound dementia patient dies, we might ask whether we should jump through hoops to save them; even in the best possible case, they’re not going to return to a very long or very fruitful existence. But when the 20-year-old college student drops dead on the lacrosse court, we want very badly to bring him back, because if we can he might live another 70 wonderful years.
Well, the people committing suicide are the second kind. They’re often middle-aged, middle-class folks who could be happy and live long — if they can get past their illness. But dead people won’t get past anything.
Of course, we see a lot of depressed people, and most of them won’t kill themselves even if they’ve thought about it. Figuring out who’s most at risk of taking that step is a worthwhile goal, and the Daily Beast article describes three risk categories that you may find useful:
- Those who feel alone, that they don’t belong anywhere
- Those who feel like a burden to others
- Those who have the willingness and capacity to go through with self-annihilation
Who feels alone? Everybody, at times. We need connection. Married people kill themselves less often than the unmarried, twins less often than only children, mothers raising small children almost never. Sometimes those who seem to have everything in life may have the weakest connections, which is why they say that money doesn’t equal happiness.
The life-saving power of belonging may help explain why, in America, blacks and Hispanics have long had much lower suicide rates than white people. They are more likely to be lashed together by poverty, and more enduringly tied by the bonds of faith and family. In the last decade, as suicide rates have surged among middle-aged whites, the risk for blacks and Hispanics of the same age has increased less than a point — although they suffer worse health by almost every other measure. There’s an old joke in the black community, a nod to the curious powers of poverty and oppression to keep suicide rates low. It’s simple, really: you can’t die by jumping from a basement window.
When nothing ties you down, when nobody cares what happens to you, what’s stopping you from shuffling off into the abyss? “I’m walking to the bridge,” one note said. “If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.” Did you smile at your last psych patient?
Who’s a burden? Anyone who’s not achieving, contributing, responsible for something or someone. The unemployed, the chronically cared-for, those with debilitating diseases or intractable poverty. We do this job because we like taking care of people, but that means there’s always someone being taken care of, and nobody loves being on that side of the equation. Some people will go to their graves rather than add to the work or worry of those around them. A few will send themselves there.
Finally, who’s actually willing to end their own lives? It takes something special to close the deal, a particular resolve; no living creature’s natural instinct is to die. Even if you have the desire, it’s not easy to pull the trigger. It’s those with the gift or the learned ability to follow through with difficult deeds, the “athletes, doctors, prostitutes, and bulimics . . . All have a history of tamping down the instinct to scream.”
Think about those categories. None of those are particularly insane thoughts to have. All it takes is their juxtaposition, and suddenly, something unthinkable becomes a very real possibility. Honest. It happens hundreds of thousands of times every year.
Suicide in EMS
“Well, what the heck,” you’re thinking. “That’s nice, but I’m not going to fix them, so why do I care? I’ll bring ’em where they’re going and say good luck; God and the doctor can take care of the rest.”
Fair enough. But I have a homework assignment for you.
Find that guy at work. You know the one. His nickname is “Doc” or “Papa.” He’s been doing this for twenty-plus years, since the days when ambulances were dinosaur-drawn wooden wagons. Ask about the other old-timers, the endless sea of faces he’s worked with over the years.
He’ll have good stories. Tons of them. Partners and coworkers and crazy SOBs. Hijinks were had, shenanigans performed, laughs all around.
But then ask what happened to those guys.
Because a lot of the time, they’re not running around on the ambulance anymore. Ol’ Doc is the exception. They’re not semi-retired, spending their afternoons fly-fishing and golfing. They didn’t jump careers to become bankers or meteorologists.
They’re dead. Or maybe in jail. Or shot robbing a 7-11 for $13. Or they were committed to a psych hospital so many times nobody knows what happened to him. Maybe they overdosed. Living on the street. Living who knows where.
And yes, some of them committed suicide.
Seems a little rich to judge your psych patients when, the way the odds go, you’re probably going to be the next one.
I suppose you could argue that EMS was different back then. Russ Reina talks about the time when most “ambulance drivers” were people who couldn’t find a job anywhere else, drifters and ex-cons. Not like now. Now we’re all as well-adjusted as Mr. Rogers. Right?
Let’s be real. A lot of the people doing this job can’t stay employed even in our own dysfunctional field, and would never stand a chance anywhere else. Drug abuse and PTSD are common. And our social support networks often don’t extend past a partner or two.
Do we belong anywhere? Maybe you do in the police or fire service. But those of us who enter private EMS usually don’t last long before being sucked into a loop of working more and more overtime until we no longer have hobbies, no longer spend time with friends, no longer travel or expand our horizons. If we have spouses, significant others, or family, we neglect them. If we don’t have those relationships, we sure as hell don’t develop them from the driver’s seat of an ambulance. The last step — which doesn’t take more than a few years — is when we start to view every one of our patients as a nuisance. Burnout takes away the last string tying us to other people; if patients aren’t worth helping, aren’t hardly people at all, then the circle of humans in our life may become no larger than our uniform belt.
Are we a burden? In many cases, that shoe drops when we find ourselves off the clock. If our life has become the ambulance, what happens when we lose the ambulance? Your company goes belly-up. We piss off the wrong boss and get tossed out on our ass. Or, inevitably, we get injured. Suddenly, the only reason to get out of bed in the morning is gone. Sounds nice at first, but you realize quickly that having nothing to do actually means you’ve got no reason to be alive.
And are we afraid of dying? Who could be less afraid? We spend every day minimizing death, trivializing the human condition, ingraining a culture that teaches we should be able to order nachos after bandaging a burn victim. We drive fast; we laugh at seatbelts. Sometimes we snort cocaine and have sex in ambulances. (No, not you. But you know who.) There’s nothing beyond the pale for an EMT. Including pulling the trigger.
So is suicide a big deal? Yes. Should we try to understand it? Yes. Does it matter for us? Yes.
But more importantly: do we get to judge it? Do we get to pretend we’re above it? Are the kind of people who attempt it so bizarrely pathological that we’re nothing like them?
You can decide. But you only get to say that if you’re willing to say you don’t care about a disease that kills more healthy patients than anything else. Willing to write off hundreds of thousands of people every year.
And willing to say you don’t care that your partner could be next. Or your boss. Or yourself.
Check out The Code Green Campaign for mental health support for EMS. — ed. 1/17/15
- Suicides Affect Patients & EMS Providers [JEMS]
- Suicidal Evaluation: The DEAD PIMP Assessment [The EMT Spot]
- Suicide Surveillance, Prevention, and Intervention Measures for the US Fire Service [National Fallen Firefighters Foundation “Everyone Goes Home” project]