My experiences of racism and abuse in the ambulance service
Paramedic for West Midlands Ambulance
Every day in 2021, a staggering 32 ambulance staff members were abused or attacked. That’s more than one every hour. During the pandemic, assaults were up 23%, and there has been an increase of 4,060 incidents over the last five years.
In this blog, Karina, a paramedic from West Midlands Ambulance, talks about some of the abuse she has experienced working on the frontline and how this has impacted her mental health.
I have had many different experiences with mental health over the years. Close family and friends have had various diagnoses, and I have struggled at times. My mindset now is that everyone may struggle with mental health at some point. I’m very grateful that the subject is becoming less taboo to talk about, meaning more people can openly seek help.
We are expected to just carry on to the next job
Working on the frontlines as a paramedic means you are exposed to lots of different elements of life. We see the worst day of someone’s life and sometimes their happiest; we are put at the forefront of countless situations, and we are expected to just carry on to the next job, the next trauma, the next patient.
This is hard enough on its own, but combined with some of the abuse we experience, it can be really tough. As a black female paramedic, I have experienced racial and sexist abuse, which can be both verbal and physical.
To do our job, you have to love to help people, but you also have to be extremely adaptable and have a thick skin to take everything on. I started feeling anxious a lot of the time, and this was made worse by the racism I was experiencing at work from the public. I was disheartened, angry, and frustrated that the colour of my skin even made a difference to someone wanting to help.
For a while, I tried to just get on with things. But I finally accepted that the anxiety wasn’t just going to stop. I needed to do something about it.
It is important to talk about mental health because it opens doors for the next person who may be struggling
I wasn’t sure what I needed, but I knew I needed to talk. I really wanted to offload and sought counselling via my GP. She was amazing and really allowed me to process everything in a way I couldn’t at the time.
I then looked into alternative holistic therapies and started meditating, which was provided for free for all NHS staff via the Headspace app. I did yoga and went out for long walks in nature. These became my coping strategies, and I continue to practise them most days.
I think it is important to talk about mental health because it opens doors for the next person who may be struggling and makes you feel like you’re not alone. It normalises an illness and allows you access to all the services that are readily available.
It’s important for NHS services to recognise the impact of racism and its effects on mental health. It may not even be direct racism that I have experienced, but I may feel the pain of that person experiencing it, and it may bring up the injustices that I have repressed to the surface.
It is important to support your colleagues and just give them a listening ear to vent, an understanding, remind them of all the good in the world, and be an ally.
If you have been affected by Karina’s blog or need to speak to someone about your personal experience, there are people you can talk to.
Support if you’ve experienced racism at work
- Talk to someone you trust
Speaking to someone about your experience can sometimes be helpful. Whether it’s family, friends, or a colleague, talking can allow us to start processing some of our feelings instead of keeping them inside. If you’d rather speak to someone anonymously, there are organisations you can contact. Mind’s Infoline is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday (except for bank holidays). Shout offers anonymous, round-the-clock support by text message. Anyone working for the emergency services can text the word ‘BLUELIGHT’ to 85258 to be connected to a trained volunteer.
If you’ve experienced or witnessed race discrimination at work, including racial harassment, racism or victimisation, you might want to report it to your employer. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this right away, contact your union for advice.
Seeking help can be a good first step
- Get support if you need it
It can be really isolating if you are struggling with your mental health but feel like nobody understands what you’re going through. But seeking help can be a good first step towards improving your mental health.
There are different options you might want to consider, such as talking to your GP, a therapist, or a counsellor. You could also look into what support is available through your employee assistance programme. The Black, African, and Asian Therapy Network provides a list of therapists from black, African, and Asian backgrounds and signposts to local mental health and advocacy services. You can also find support using Bayo which provides a list of mental health services and organisations providing support to the black community.
Connecting with and speaking to others who have gone through similar things can also help. You can find peer support groups near you through the Blue Light Together directory.
- Be kind to yourself
Try to take some time for yourself each day to practice self-care. Meditation, listening to music, or taking time to think about what makes you happy can help support your wellbeing. Different things will work for different people, but the important thing is to take the time to do something for yourself. Mind has a list of self-care resources and techniques here.
Be kind to yourself, and remember, if you are having a bad day, it’s OK to feel those emotions.