Tackling mental health across all departments within the emergency services

Mental Health in the emergency services is often largely focused on frontline staff - the paramedics, firefighters and police officers. However, little is known of the impact on call handlers who make critical decisions in assessing what type of emergency response to dispatch.

 Call handlers are exposed to traumatic and abusive calls which can affect their mental health. 

Call handlers are exposed to traumatic and abusive calls which can affect their mental health. 

A recent study reports, the unique pressures and challenges placed on the emergency call handlers can negatively impact their psychological wellbeing long-term. 

Examining 16 studies from across the world, researchers identified key factors which cause handlers stress and potentially impact on their psychological health. Exposure to traumatic and abusive calls was found to negatively affect call handlers, because although they are not physically exposed to emergency situations, evidence demonstrated that they experienced trauma vicariously.

A key stressor for call handlers was a lack of control over their workload due to the unpredictability of calls and a lack of organisational recognition of the demands of managing their job flow.

Mark Cropley, Professor in Health Psychology at the University of Surrey – who helped conduct the surveys, said:

“Call handlers across different emergency services consistently reported their job as highly stressful, which in turn affects their psychological health. This undoubtedly impacts on their overall wellbeing, leading to increased sickness and time away from work, putting additional strain on the service and their colleagues.

“It’s important that call handlers are considered, and interventions are made to ensure that they can cope with their workload – as they are making vital decisions which affect lives.”

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Jules Lockett, Head of EOC training for London Ambulance Services in their Control Room and is a champion of supporting and delivering mental health awareness within the London Ambulance Service.

"Having a personal experience on my own mental health allowed me to share that experience to new and established colleagues to allow them to know that it is ok to feel low, feel helpless, frustrated and alone.

For me, I had to have surgery which left me not being able to work, I felt isolated and that I wasn’t sure if I could return to work because of my thoughts and feelings.

Work was what I needed to help me feel me again – it wasn’t the cause of how I felt, but the 'family feel' the service gives you makes you feel that you are not alone.

From this, I took the decision to talk about mental health, share my experience and allow others to grow confident in speaking up.

I have introduced well-being events, a relaxed environment with bean bags and nothing else, no music, no food, no electronic equipment, just a safe space to have some ‘you time’ during the working shift.

Our staff have the option to take a break after any call may upset them, it doesn’t need to be traumatic or tragic, it can be a social situation with a vulnerable patient that hits you, you can feel helpless, so it’s important our staff talk to each other or our support networks that are available 24/7. The job in any control room is that you imagine the worst case scenario because you can’t actually see the scene, you can’t put your arms around that person and give them a hug to ease the pain or hurt, in the control room you have to do this with your voice, you reassure, you calm, you comfort the caller all without closure of knowing what happened – that is something that can happen to anyone of us and impact on our mental wellbeing."

The Bluelight Programme launched by Mind has been designed to tackle the high level of mental health support needed within the emergency services.

Ed Simpson, a former North Yorkshire Police officer who suffered from PTSD and depression after a stint as a family liaison officer nine years ago, says

‘‘I remember walking back into work, after 11 months, feeling that I had no right to be there, no right to wear the uniform and no right to call myself a Police Officer. It was a job I had wanted to do since I was a kid, but it had destroyed me. In my mind, I was completely worthless, a failure as a father, a husband and a friend. I had never heard anyone talk about their mental health at work before, so I believed I was the only one. The support to talk about my own mental health and the response has been truly overwhelming. Once I spoke up, others did too. I soon realised I was not alone. That fear I had talking and being open about your mental health is so incredibly powerful. It has made me realise I am anything but a failure and still have so much to give. It reminds me that I am only human, trying hard to do a difficult job.”

He now speaks about his experiences as an ambassador for the Mind charity's Bluelight Programme, raising awareness of the support available to all emergency services staff.

Below is the reach of the Bluelight programme.

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More information can be found online at www.mind.org.uk or by calling 0300 303 599. Text 84999 or email: bluelightinfo@mind.org.uk

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