“I was always drawn to helping people,” states Susan Ash, an EMS first responder in Lawrence Township, NJ. Growing up around the excitement of being a first responder, Susan knew from a young age that she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps, who was on the rescue squad and served as a policeman. Susan, now serving for 20 years, states that no amount of experience being a first responder could have prepared her for COVID-19. “At first I was in disbelief, then we all had to try to adapt to something we’ve knew been taught to handle,” Susan explained her and her team’s initial feelings in the beginning of the pandemic.
Susan, taking pride in saving lives as her career, was now faced with feelings of hopelessness due to the mass casualty of sickness she and her partner were experiencing each day on the job. “Watching so many patients die out of our control, my brain couldn’t process what was going on. Usually you have one or two situations that really stick with you, but this was months of those kinds of situations,” Susan states explaining the daily traumas of COVID-19. Losing patients to COVID-19, was not the only thing Susan was grieving during the pandemic.
Susan, like all individuals living through the pandemic, also had to cope with the loss of normalcy. “Simple pleasures were gone. There were no more coffee runs, we no longer had those little things that got us through our day. Work began to get a lot drearier.” As Susan explained the roller coaster of emotions, she began to see a shift in her mental health. The constant trauma and fear of getting her family sick started to take a toll.
“We wear so many different coats. We wear a coat for work, one for being a wife/husband, a friend, a daughter/son, a sister/brother, a neighbor. All of these coats that we have to wear, yet the coat we wear for work feels like a straight jacket that we can’t remove, as it bears the burden of loss, anxiety, depression and compassion fatigue.”
Susan reported feeling more disconnected, depressed, and started experiencing anxiety when having to go to work. How does someone manage all of this, while continuing to show up each day to serve others?
Susan showed resilience by seeking out help, “I knew I was struggling to process everything, so I contacted a counselor and began to do weekly sessions.” Susan reported that it can be hard to open up to loved ones about the causalities seen each day, and therapy helped her feel less alone. Susan also relied heavily on the support from her peers at work, “Who else is going to understand what you’re going through? Leaning on peers and taking care of my mental health have allowed me to continue to show up.” Susan explained that during a time that felt very unsafe, she found safety in her support.
Susan recognizes the EMS culture and the effects COVID-19 had had on everyone’s mental health, “There is a big stigma in mental health but an even bigger stigma with mental
health in emergency service.” Due to the pandemic, Susan has found purpose in helping to break the stigma of getting help and taking care of her own mental health. Susan recognized, “If I can’t take care of myself, I can’t take care of anyone else.” Throughout her journey with therapy, Susan was able to recognize the important of staying positive even when the negativity can feel overwhelming. She found little joys in her daily routines, “Music really helped my peers and me. We would share stories about past concerts and connect to each other through good memories.” Music is just one of the many ways Susan would take care of her mental health. She also became more intentional about taking breaks from social media, made connecting with friends and family over the phone or FaceTime more of a priority, and tried to maintain a positive mindset each day.
Susan recognizes that taking care of your mental health can be one of the toughest challenges, but it also is the most important. If there was one thing Susan could share with other First Responders during COVID-19 it is, “Take the time to take care of yourself, so you can take care of others.” From making her therapy a priority to encouraging peers to seek out help when needed, Susan takes this message with her no matter what coat she is wearing. Just like how Susan finds support in her peers, family, and friends, we are here to support you. As we move forward and build our resiliency as a community though this unprecedented time, please know that you are not alone. Our RISE: NJ First Responder COVID Hope and Healing Helpline is available 7 days a week 8am-8pm. We are here for you.