This year’s terror attacks in Manchester and London and the Grenfell Tower disaster exposed police and firefighters to unprecedented levels of persistent trauma, with many having to deal with scores of dead and badly hurt children.
In the wake of these disasters that claimed so many lives and saw rescue teams contend with horrific scenes of death and devastation, £1.5 million of government money has been allocated to the mental health charity Mind which is spearheading support for any emergency services personnel who might need its help.
The North Wales effort is being co-ordinated by North-East Wales Mind workplace wellbeing manager Berni Durham-Jones, who is launching an appeal for what the charity is calling ‘Blue Light Champions’ – who will be given training and guidance to help colleagues suffering from mental health issues related to the lifesaving service they provide.
Based in the charity’s headquarters at the Wellbeing Centre in Chester Street, Mold, the experienced mental health campaigner explained how the system would work.
“Our Blue Light Programme is designed to provide mental health support for emergency services staff and volunteers from all our ambulance, police, fire and search and rescue services on land, sea and in the air,” says Berni.
“Many 999 responders have admitted they are reluctant to seek help for mental health problems, which they are concerned will be seen as a weakness.
“They often have to confront scenes that are disturbing and situations that are potentially dangerous, so it is not surprising some suffer emotional and mental health issues that need support.”
Last year an online poll, commissioned by Mind, found more than one in four people had contemplated taking their own lives due to stress and poor mental health while working for the emergency services, while nearly two-thirds had contemplated leaving their job or voluntary role due to stress or poor mental health.
The online survey of more than 1,600 staff and volunteers from police, fire, ambulance and search and rescue services showed more than nine in 10 respondents had endured stress, low mood and poor mental health at some point while working for the emergency services.
A staggering 62 per cent said they had experienced a mental health problem – such as depression, anxiety disorder, OCD, PTSD, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia – while working or volunteering in their current or previous Blue Light role.
In response to these high levels of stress, low mood and poor mental health among emergency service workers, Mind has been delivering a major programme of support for emergency services staff and volunteers through the Blue Light Programme – which has seen about 450 emergency service staff register to be Blue Light Champions.
“We equip them with the information so they can talk to their colleagues,” says Berni. “It’s about having that conversation that starts ‘I notice you’re not yourself today? Do you want to chat about it?’
“If you think for example about what a paramedic sees on a daily basis your cup can overflow and if you don’t talk about it or express how you feel than it eventually you will explode.
“They do such a brilliant job on a daily basis and they need as much support as the people they are helping.
“They must see horrific things and they’re things that we as a society don’t really want to think about sometimes.”
Despite the high prevalence of mental health problems, the survey revealed less than half – 48 per cent – of emergency workers had taken time off work due to stress, low mood or poor mental health.
In addition, nearly half – 46 per cent – said someone would be treated differently in a negative way if they disclosed a mental health problem at their organisation.
“Lots of our respondents said they feel they would be treated differently if they had a mental health problem, and wouldn’t feel comfortable coming forward if they were struggling with their mental health,” says Berni.
“We’ve made some great strides in raising awareness, tackling stigma and encouraging working environments where people feel able to talk about mental health.
“The tide is definitely turning and it needed to. Lots of people suffer from mental health problems and that can be triggered by anything from a bereavement or something that can be solved quickly or it might take longer and become very debilitating for that person.”
Respondents to the poll also said while working for the emergency services just over two in five had been prescribed medication, such as antidepressants, sleeping tablets etc, due to stress and poor mental health – and five per cent had made an actual attempt to take their own life because of these factors.
“There is still a long way to go but it is good that people are taking more interest and celebrities coming forward at the moment makes such a difference because there is still a stigma - people are often scared to talk to us because they think people will think they’re nuts. We don’t think that – we’re here to support you,” adds Berni.
“Our Blue Light Programme is designed to provide mental health support for emergency services staff and volunteers from all our ambulance , police, fire and search and rescue services on land, sea and in the air.
“I want anyone in any of these emergency services who is interesting in becoming a Blue Light Champion to contact me so that together we can extend this programme to reach as many as need our help as soon as possible.”
l Berni Durham-Jones can be contacted on 01352 974431 or 07897300456 or by email at berni.durham-jones @newmind.org.uk.