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After nearly 16 years on the road as a New South Wales paramedic, Mitch Pettet is no stranger to the pressures of work and has dealt with his fair share of stressful situations. However, when his vacation came to an end last month, the seasoned lifeguard was afraid to go back to work.

Like many others, the Pettet family’s travel plans were ruined when the growing NSW group of COVID-19 saw restrictions imposed on much of the state. The disappointment at the missed trip soon wore off, but as the date of Mr. Pettet’s return from leave drew near, he grew increasingly apprehensive.

“The week before I got back to work, things started to intensify for all the paramedics on the front line,” he said.

Paramedic Mitch Pettet with his wife and children. (Supplied)

“I read the emails every day and it was hard to keep up with all the updates that were coming. I was pretty scared to go back to work, I didn’t know what I was going to get into when I got back.”

Mr. Pettet, who is representative of Australian Paramedic Association and works at the Toukley station on the central coast of New South Wales, he said doing his job well in full personal protective equipment and fear of inadvertently bringing the virus to his family were some of his biggest concerns.

According to research from Charles Sturt University, published this week, a growing number of first responders are experiencing mental health problems as a result of the additional pressures that the pandemic has brought to their workplace.

The 1,500 responders surveyed reported pressures around increased workloads, an ever-changing work environment and access to PPE among their top concerns.

Paramedics are among the first responders facing additional pressures during the pandemic. (Dylan Coker)
The report found first responders they were 10 times more likely to suffer from depression than the general population and four times more likely to experience anxiety. The level of burnout in the workplace was also high, with more than 40 percent of those surveyed considering leaving their current job.

The report’s authors noted that all organizations employing first responders across the country provide mental health wellness programs and support to their employees and their families. They described those programs as helpful, but said respondents were looking for more “prevention” strategies in the workplace.

The findings come as no surprise to former Queensland Police Officer James Maskey who, as the Engagement Manager of The Strong Supporting Organization, Australia, you have noticed an increase in the need for mental health support for first responders over the past 18 months.

“Our increased demand has certainly coincided with the wildfires of the black summer of 2020, and then obviously, for the better part of two years, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen a significant increase,” he said.

“Depletion rates are alarmingly high and the CSU investigation really pointed to that.

“We have also received anecdotal stories from the lifeguards, they are quite eager to bring COVID-19 home to their families.

“There are stories where people sleep and shower at the station or reluctantly return home.

“When they return home, they are aware that they must shed their PPE, take off their clothes, wash their clothes well and scrub themselves before they are ready to enter the house.”

Pettet said he showers and changes clothes at the station before returning home from his shifts. It’s something he did when the pandemic started last year, but hadn’t been doing it this year – until now.

Paramedic Mitch Pettet showers at the station before returning home after a shift. (Supplied)

“I think most paramedics are the same. Nobody ever wants to get infected, but if you do, you worry who you are going to transmit it to because we are in and out of people’s houses all the time.” he said.

“So that’s a big responsibility. We need to be vigilant so that we don’t inadvertently pass it on, and obviously that also relates to his family.”

Maskey said that while there are no quick fixes to the pressures responders are facing right now, there are little things the general public can do to make a positive impact.

“They can express gratitude to first responders, they can send a postcard, they can have their children make artwork or a poster, they can say things on social media,” he said.

“From my own personal experience, the profound positive impact it could have was remarkable, as being a lifeguard is often a thankless task.”

Pettet said keeping up with the latest COVID-19 restrictions and understanding the additional requirements that first responders must meet would also help.

“We do our job because we love it and we want to help people,” he said.

“Sometimes we may take a few more minutes than we would like because we need to put on our personal protective equipment and work in a slightly different way.

“When people realize that and understand that we are doing everything possible to help them and their loved ones, things are much less stressful.”

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