When you finally get your dream job and it turns into a mental health nightmare, what do you do? As a young adult entering the workforce, Danielle Louis started working at her dream job as an emergency medical technician, an EMT.
Like most first responders, Danielle endured tremendous pressure on the job – physical, emotional, and social. Keeping a hero’s brave face on the job was the norm, leaving no room for human emotion, and left Danielle and her colleagues emotionally tapped. She found the mental health challenges first responders endure a major public health issue and decided to take the system head on. Danielle decided to go back to school to arm herself with knowledge and combat the stigma of mental health among first responders.
More about today’s guest:
• Find Danielle on LinkedIn.
Explore these related stories:
- David Sack, M.D. recommends how first responders can deal with trauma.
- Rene Ebersole shares what a first responder’s struggle with PTSD is like.
- Occupational Health & Safety – Mental Health and First Responders: How Their Jobs Can Cause More than Just Stress.
- American Addiction Centers— Firefighters & First Responders Risk of Substance Abuse.
Joe Taylor: [00:00:00] This is Everything We Found, conversations from Search and Replace. I'm Joe Taylor, Jr. This companion podcast includes all the interviews and ideas we couldn't fit into our regular show. And while Search and Replace is designed for radio, we don't have the same time constraints here. Every once in a while, I get to talk with someone who's got way more ideas than we could ever fit into seven minutes-- and that's the case with this episode's guest. Danielle Louis is the sister of our series Producer, Nicole Hubbard. A few years ago, Danielle started working in her dream job as an emergency medical technician, an EMT. Like most first responders, Danielle endured tremendous pressure on that job, physical, emotional, and social. She started observing the effects of that pressure on the people we depend on to help save our lives. So she made a big decision-- to leave her job and go back to school for training that will enable her to help improve the mental health of first responders and combat veterans. Here's our full conversation with just a few edits for clarity. Walk us through the broad idea here of having a job that you love and realizing it may not be turning out the way that you expected. Danielle Louis: [00:01:20] Yeah, so it was a challenge and it took several months to about a year for me to realize that it was a transition phase. So I entered into my job as a paramedic and I loved it. It was great, it was everything I wanted it to be. However, after several years and several personal circumstances and situations where it just wasn't working with who I want it to be as a person. It wasn't fitting what I felt people should be treated as humans. And it just didn't feel right for me anymore, even though I still loved it. And I realized that there was so much work to be done for the job and the career that I was in. So as a paramedic, I really saw there was so much work to be done on the mental health side. And for about the last year of me realizing that, and realizing that would be a better fit for me, it just started to feel less scary. And I was just like, you know what, the fear's going away. I'm feeling excited about the possibility, and I know what will be a better fit for me. And it just took time to settle in to me, into my mindset. But I was like, I can leave. I can leave. I'm confident. I know what I'm going to do. I know it's going to help me. I know it's going to help this field of emergency medical services in the end. Like I knew it was my end goal. And when I finally felt okay with it, it was time. And it just took about a year and I had to ground myself in my decisions. Making sure it wasn't, like, too quick of a change. Like, Oh I'm just going to leave because it's annoying me or I don't like this job again. You know, just not just a bad day at work that I knew it was something big. And after about a year I knew, and that's when I left and transitioned out. So that was monumental. And I still love the field. I still love the job, but I knew it wasn't good for me anymore. I could feel it deep down. I knew it in the way I was interacting with people in my life. My loved ones, my friends, the misery of, Oh I have to go to work again. Like I knew it. It's just starting to listen to that. And then I finally was able to make the change. Joe Taylor: [00:03:32] Walk me through some of the specific moments where you started to realize that maybe things were not the ideal that you thought they would be. What were the first things that you noticed? Danielle Louis: [00:03:45] Yeah. So the first things I started to notice were just, you have to always be abrasive. You had to always be this, like, person that- Oh don't cry or, Oh don't...why is that getting to you? Why are you letting that get to you? Or you're tough. You don't need to let this get to you. And it was just like, wow. I felt shut down in every way. Like I am a human, I have a job that's tough. Like, I'm functioning as a paramedic. It's a hard job, but in the opposite, like, realm of my life I'm a human. And I was just being made fun of, for kind, of having these emotional, like, in-tune reactions and responses to things. And one thing that really sticks out was I had lost my mother to cancer and I came back to work two days after her funeral and had to work a 12-hour shift. And I remember going into this office that we had after my shift and I was crying and someone actually came up and was making fun of me for crying. It was a coworker and it was, it's just devastating. And there was this reality that I'm not going to be putting up with this. This is not what I want. I don't want to feel like who I am as a human isn't going to be respected because my job is hard as it is. And the things that I see is hard...they're hard. And every other aspect of my job is hard. And if I can't feel like I can be my whole self, I don't really want to choose that anymore. And that was a really pertinent turning point for me. Because then after that, I just kept seeing it in our interractions with each other was like, instead of supporting each other, it was more like buck up- you can do this. This is what you have to do. And it just was like, actually it shouldn't have to be that way. We should be able to do both at the same time. And those were those moments that I kept hearing people talk like that to each other, or talk to me. And I was like, you know what- this isn't right. We all can do better. And I'm going to be the first person that has to be like, I'm out, I'm going to make the change. I'll come back to you and help you all see it from a different perspective one day, but I can't do it anymore. So those were huge, monumental things. And I just felt I was being discouraged to be who I was and asked for what I needed. Joe Taylor: [00:05:57] Tell me more about where you think the source of that culture stems from. Is it a defensiveness? Is it from people that are trying to be guarded about their emotions? Is it pure competitiveness? Where does that come from, do you think? Danielle Louis: [00:06:16] Such a good question because I think it's a lot of each of those. I think that there's a huge stigma, surrounded EMS, fire, police. There's this huge stigma that, you don't have emotions. You can't have those emotions because if you let your guard down, you're no longer going to be able to cope with it. What happens if you become this blubbering, crying mess in the middle of this horrific scene or in the middle of this call. And there's this idea that you can only be that person. That you better be tough enough to handle this call. And then there's the stigma that can only be who you are all the time. Don't be emotional in your marriage or in your or relationship or in your friendships. You are always the tough person. That's who you're supposed to be. And then there is some competitiveness, I think, when you're trying to prove yourself maybe for a promotion or to be a certain person in the field. They're like, I can hold myself together. Can this person hold themselves together? So we think there is a sense of that as well. But I really think a big part of it comes from the stigma that surrounds us that all we are are people that see the worst of things. And then there's stigma about what we do. Oh, you're just going to go off and drink yourself to sleep, or you're just and cope with these maladaptive coping mechanisms. And unfortunately, that is what a lot of people do because emotions are not an important part of what they teach you in school when you become a paramedic or when you do the fire Academy. You're not taught how to cope healthily. You're taught to do your job and that's it. And then you are left in the middle of this life that you don't know what side to choose. Do I want to be a good human for my loved ones? Or do I want to be tough enough that when my community calls me that I can do everything they need me to do without shedding a tear. But the reality is there's room to be both of those things. And that's not commonly approached or talked about in any of these dynamics with emergency services. Joe Taylor: [00:08:26] Tell me a little bit more about why you think it's not talked about. Is that a cultural thing? Is that a budget thing? Is that kind of an element of toxic masculinity? Where does it come from that it doesn't necessarily feel safe to express emotion in a workplace environment like that? Danielle Louis: [00:08:48] Yeah. So there is, it is a male dominated field and has been a male dominated field for quite a while. And I'm speaking directly to you as my time as a paramedic. It is gradually changing, but it has been male dominated for quite a while. And I think originating in that is that sense of we don't cry and we don't share our emotions. So it does that aspect of toxic masculinity, I think, in the roots of it. But as it transforms and we evolve to society that it's slowly not becoming as male dominated and it's really having this mixture of individuals who come in. But it is, oftentimes what does your agency choose to spend money on? I remember my agency, during our training, they had a specialist come in and tell you about body mechanics. So how to lift properly. How not to hurt your back when you're lifting a stretcher with someone that is heavier than you are. How to do these things properly. So they really focus and spend that effort and that money on, okay, here's what we do to make sure you don't get hurt on the job and cost us money. But we're not going to tell you about- here's 10 different coping mechanisms, and here is who you can go to. We have a special focus group on the job that you can go to if you're having issues with your mental health or you have complaints or concerns. That doesn't exist. So I do think it's a- they are going to choose to spend their money and train you possibly where they might lose money in the end. So I do think it's a very corporate decision to focus on the most salient aspects of why are we going to spend money on you as a new employee? Weâ€™re gonnaâ€™ make sure you don't get hurt. That's something that we can see. But we can't see what your mental health is. And the truth is if something happens with your mental wellness, that's not going to affect them or their capability of being an agency. So, I do think there is toxic masculinity. I do think there are choices of budget that are going to more physical health and physical wellness instead of mental health and mental wellness. Witch you really can't have one without the other, but that's not commonly seen or commonly talked about. So it creates this culture of, yes we're going to take care of your physical body but we're not going to take care of who you are as a person. We're not going to take care of your mental health because that really doesn't affect us as much. And that's really the message that gets sent out a lot of times. Joe Taylor: [00:11:19] So where do you see opportunities for change? Is that something that's got to be driven by elected leaders? Does it have to be driven by leaders within first responder services? Where do we, as community members, come in to try and ask our officials to give folks the okay- that it's fine for us to spend budget on this. Danielle Louis: [00:11:48] And that's huge. That's a great question because we do need the push, right? We need this push from the community to say, listen, I know how hard-- even if we use COVID-19 as an example. You can go in and talk to your council members at an open conversation and be like, hi how are we taking care of all of our first responders when this pandemic going on? And the answer, in several counties, are probably going to come out more of a please broaden that question more because the answer is going to be well, we're not doing anything to take care of them during this pandemic. Or we're not necessarily giving money to that. And I see that no one considered that. So possibly that's why no one goes and brings it to the community or to panels to be like, hey what are we doing for our first responders? 'Cause it slips their mind that these individuals in fire, police or EMS have to have that. It slips their mind that we're involved with several diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and we're re-traumatized in our own community. And we see things that bring back these memories and these horrible scenarios and we're a forgotten group of individuals. So people don't come to community service or community panels and be like, let's talk about our first responders. I want to open a conversation about how we can raise money, how the state can fund it, how we can create a program with a consult team and really start to make this a priority for people that are serving us in our community. And I th ink a huge point to bring up if someone was in a place where they wanted to be vulnerable and go and bring that discussion up. It would be, how can they take care of us if they're not mentally stable? How can we trust that they're going to be the best version of themselves when we call 911 if you're not caring for who they are as the whole person? And I think that would be a powerful argument and a powerful discussion to open up based off of that point alone, because it's really important that the community understands that if you're not getting a healthy, mentally like strong and capable person that's being taught how to cope well and has a great outlook on their agency and their resources, then they're probably not going to be the best version when you call 911. They're going to be exhausted. They're going to be depressed. They're going to have something that's overwhelming and- so there are options if people really started to push this. I know one of my goals, when I graduate with my degree in psychology, is to create a consultation program that goes around to agencies and talks about how to integrate coping mechanisms into a training for onboarding new members. So there are also chances to do this because every EMS service has Continuing Education or in-service. So that's an opportunity once a month to go in, they have these two hour blocks of time, they're talking about a topic. It could be once a year and you go in and it's about mental health and coping mechanisms and how to take care of yourself and how to support others. So the opportunities are there, the discussion isn't. The vulnerability isn't. And the community pushing for the agencies to want that for their employees isn't there right now. So, you bring up a great point. It's necessary that people start to have this conversation and talk about it. Joe Taylor: [00:15:16] So I think that's a great segue into the change that you made in your career and the trajectory that you're following. The path from your EMS career and in shifting into formal training in psychology and counseling. I think no one would have blamed you at all if you said, I want to do something completely different. But you're diving right back in to work with the population of folks who you were identifying as vulnerable to this re-exposure to trauma. So tell our audience about how you chose to take that on and how you chose to add the education and the training that you need to be able to serve that population. Danielle Louis: [00:16:17] Absolutely. It's exciting for me because I feel like, there are a lot of people that know EMS. There are a lot of people that know psychology. But there are not a lot of people who've come from my background as a paramedic that can also get that formal training in counseling. And I felt like that is the best opportunity for me to be able to learn about so many different aspects of the mind and cognitions and learn coping mechanisms and skills to integrate. But also I think I still have that personality, the understanding of what it's like to be in their shoes, the understanding of the pressure that comes from community society, your agency, every other side of you. And then your, like, I have to take care of myself too. So I know what it feels like. Like, I was that person, I experienced that. But I also experienced seeing my coworkers and my friends just get run into the ground and become versions of themselves that I wasn't used to, or that weren't the best version of themselves. I saw relationships fall apart. We see people get addicted to substances. Like, these things do happen and I saw it firsthand. So to me, going in with experience to these agencies when I say, I want to create a consult program to teach your paramedics and EMTs how to create coping mechanisms, integrate these great skills and to provide them psychoeducation. I have background as a paramedic. I understand there are definitely moving pieces to an agency and to all of these individuals when they're on shift. But I feel like it gives me that leverage. Like, I get it. I understand you. I hear you. I know this is tough. I know people might make fun of you. I know this isn't the easy thing to do, but let's talk about it. I've been there. And now I know what it's like, and I know what the consequences are if you don't start taking care of yourself now. So I feel like not many people have my opportunity of having the background in EMS, but also having a great degree. With all of these wonderful programs that I've been going through that are about consult programs and how to work with agencies. And I've been given all of these tools that I feel well prepared to go right back in and be like, let me help you. Because I want to help them because I know how hard it is to feel like you're the only one suffering in your crew. Or the only ones suffering on your shift. But in reality, I wasn't the only one suffering. And then the reality of now, and whoever's on shift right now- they're not the only one suffering either. There just needs to be this ability to talk about it and to learn about it and to be in it together. And I feel like I can offer that as soon as I finish my degree and I'm willing to jump right back in because I feel like it's worth it. I've heard about one too many things, one to many suicides when too many negative outcomes of my fellow colleagues or my former colleagues. And I don't want that to continue. And I believe that it's time that EMS and emergency medical services in general is no longer that forgotten group of people. They deserve better. And I'm willing to do that and to give that to them or to help facilitate that. Joe Taylor: [00:19:39] Knowing that you've got some time before you'll be able to be back out in that community. What can folks do now? Especially in an environment, if they feel like there may be negative consequences to raising your hand and asking for help, what can folks do now if they are feeling that pressure and they can't go to someone who's a colleague or a supervisor? Danielle Louis: [00:20:07] Great question as well. I feel that right now with so many negative things happening in the world, it's scary and it's overwhelming- that if something's bothering you and something really doesn't feel right, and you feel like you're in a place within your life, that you're struggling. It's sometimes as simple as a Google search to just put in, okay, psychoeducation on anxiety, psychoeducation on depression or skill sheets for anxiety and you'll get these great skills sheets to really help process your anxieties, process what's making you feel negative, process all of these things. But also I really give this word of advice, knowing that it might be difficult to do, but seek your community out and see what type of free group psychotherapy services are offered right now during the pandemic, a lot of therapists office, a lot of community centers are offering group psychology for a discounted or free cost free at cost. So there are these options to seek out your community, to seek out the resources that are there, that it's confidential besides who's in the group with you as a trusted. source. But if you really just have to start journey on your own, just at least research what your feeling, at least try to seek out some sources of healthy coping, even if that's being able to identify how you feel. Read a book. There are plenty of books that I would suggest to people. Like it's just really taking it upon yourself to know that it's okay to feel the way you're feeling and there's nothing to feel guilty about and just seeking out some of those resources can help. And your loved ones will never judge you. And that's something I had to learn when I reached out to my family or if I was going through something I'm not, yeah, I'm tough. I was tough, but I was human. And being able to show that through your loved ones is extremely important. Joe Taylor: [00:22:11] And I'm glad that you brought that up because I wanted to come back around to that. I think there's... It's always tough when you have people in your life who are accustomed to seeing you in a certain way. So what did you tell your family when you said, Hey, you may know me this way, but I want to do more and I want to do something different. How did you frame that up to the people in your life and how did their reaction move you forward? Danielle Louis: [00:22:44] Yeah. For one, I am extremely lucky. I have a very supportive family. And we had all gone through a hard time with my Mom I'm passing. And a lot of us had these things starting to brew up in us. Those moments where you're like, am I doing what I want to do with my life because I can see how quickly it can end. And it was just so we were all experiencing these bubbling ups of change, so it was on the horizon. But honestly it came from me just being extremely honest and just outwardly, unfortunately for everyone, miserable. I would just say I'm so unhappy, or I'm so frustrated or this happened and I'm so mad about it. But that was coupled with me saying a lot of times, yeah but I love my job or I feel conflicted and just be really open with them because we all, again, we're close family and we talk about mostly everything. But it would be like, I hate this part but I'm conflicted 'cause I still love my job. I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't know what my decision is going to look like. And then finally, with the support of my family just being there, honestly, listening and not being my punching bag, but literally just listening to every aspect of my negative mood and my negative feelings and just letting me be and sit in that for awhile, but support me. By the time it came to my own processing, I realized what it was time for and it was time for a change. As soon as I offered that up to my loved ones, they were like, yes, do it. Because this has been bothering you for so long. You're talking about it, you're being honest about it. You obviously know what you want to do now. You feel better about it. Why not follow it? Yes, it's going to be scary. Changes isn't great. The possibility of leaving a job, your big girl job, you're getting paid. You have a career and you're leaving it. Yeah, that's scary, but you want it and it's important to you and your meaning is important. So I literally had that support because I had been honest that whole time, how miserable I was, how conflicted I was. And when that resolution finally came, they knew it was right for me. And I knew it was right for me and we were all in it together and they'd been in it with me this whole time. And I'm very thankful for that. And sometimes not everyone's going to have that option or that support, but sometimes all you need is that gut feeling with yourself. That feeling that I know this is right. I know it's time for change. I know I can do it. That's the most important thing. And if you believe that and trust in that and see a journey for yourself, you have to take it because I did learn, we all learned when my Mom passed, that you don't have forever to make these changes. So as soon as you feel like it's time and you're ready, it's definitely time. That's the true feeling. You follow your gut. That's never bad advice to give. Joe Taylor: [00:25:34] Before we wrap up, I want to make sure if there's anything else that you want to touch on, or if there's any question I should be asking you, what would that be? Danielle Louis: [00:25:44] I think you've asked great questions. And I just want to touch a little bit more on the part about community that you brought up. And I just want to really push that. I love the community that I worked for and I loved the County, but you bring up a great point. It is so important for the community, members and society, to start asking questions, how agencies are taking care of their employees. Start promoting for change, start advocating for first responders because they need it. We're all saying thank you to our first responders. Thank you during this pandemic. Thank you for all you do. But it's time to advocate and ask, but what is it community doing for them? How are they being served? How is their mental health? What kind of wellness is their agency giving them? Is it okay that they're not giving them these skills? Is it okay that these agencies are getting away with it? It's time to advocate because, and I also work with the veteran population here at grad school in Columbia. So I want to advocate for first responders as well that we are doing so much research on veterans and PTSD and how we serve that community. We need to advocate, as well, for first responder communities. And that's extremely important because it's going to keep being that quieted, stigmatized area if we don't talk about it and bring it forth to community members and decision makers in our community. So I thank you for asking that question. I just really wanted to push that and say, that's a great point and that's how we all can help serve our first responders. Joe Taylor: [00:27:11] I hope you enjoyed this special presentation of our full conversation with Danielle Louis. You can learn more about Danielle from the show notes and by visiting our website at searchandreplace.show. Search and Replace was produced by Nicole Hubbard with support from Christine Benton, Connie Evans, Amelia Lohmann, April Smith, and Executive Producer Lori Taylor. Our theme music was composed by Alex DuFire. I'm Joe Taylor, Jr. Announcer: [00:27:36] This has been a Podcast Taxi radio production.