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Pandemic takes its toll on ambulance workers' mental health

20 April 2021

DATA FROM a survey of almost 4,000 staff and volunteers across police, fire and ambulance services in the UK has laid bare the scale of poor mental health among emergency responders.

The statistics come as Mind announces the relaunch of their Blue Light Programme of wellbeing support for the emergency services, which has been funded by The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

The online survey found that mental health has worsened across 999 services, but that ambulance staff were worst affected. Only one in four (26 per cent) ambulance staff reported their current mental health as very good or good compared to just over one in three police (35 per cent) and almost two in five (39 per cent) survey respondents working within the fire service.

Ambulance staff were the most likely (77 per cent) to say their mental health has worsened since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, compared to police (66 per cent) or fire (65 per cent). One in four (25 per cent) 999 staff and volunteers surveyed rated their current mental health as poor or very poor. The highest proportion of respondents saying they had poor mental health were within the ambulance service, at almost one in three (32 per cent). This compares to just under one in four (23 per cent) respondents from the police service and one in five (20 per cent) within the fire service who rated their mental health as poor currently.

Responding to these survey findings, Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, said, “We know that even before the coronavirus outbreak, there were high rates of poor mental health across the emergency services. It’s clear from this latest survey data that the mental health of our emergency responder community has got even worse, with ambulance staff and volunteers hardest hit. Blue light staff have told us that working within the emergency services - especially the ambulance service - is a hugely rewarding but challenging job. Our survey data and interviews with 999 staff and volunteers indicate that coronavirus has made these roles even more demanding, as staff are faced with making more difficult and potentially life-and-death decisions on a daily basis, as well as dealing with death and bereavement, in addition to concerns for their own health and wellbeing and that of their loved ones. 

“It’s really important that our hardworking emergency responders are able to access support for their wellbeing if and when they need it. Thanks to funding from The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s COVID-19 Response Fund, Mind is delighted to once again be providing wellbeing support, training and resources to all 999 staff and volunteers via our Blue Light Programme. Over the next year, we hope to be able to reach as many people as possible who need our support. We also hope to help employers embed best practice so that staff and volunteers can continue to access the right support for them in the short and longer-term, as we begin to come to terms with the true mental health impact of the pandemic.”

Ben Hawkins is 22 and lives in Peterborough. He works for East of England Ambulance service as an emergency dispatcher, meaning he’s responsible for prioritising which callers get ambulances and in what order. Ben said, “At work, I’m a happy, cheery person, but I do struggle with my mental health. In 2019, I lost a best friend to suicide, lost another friend in a car crash, and went through a relationship break-up. This affected me so much that I attempted to take my own life. Thankfully, my friends helped me get through it, although I still experience anxiety and low mood. 

“Blue Light staff get sad too and the last year has been especially tough. Christmas Day was especially bad, it was absolutely heart-breaking. For a good few months, it felt like it was just suicide and COVID deaths, all the time. Ambulance staff have been fighting a mental health pandemic as well as dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. As well as dealing with traumatic events, we often get abuse on the phone, even death threats. 

“We’re exposed to people’s most horrific hours of their entire lives. It’s a privilege to know in some small way that we have helped but it is tough too. It’s great to hear that Mind’s Blue Light programme is re-launching, I really feel all emergency services staff and volunteers could benefit from extra support for their wellbeing. This has never been more important, as we deal with the fall-out of the pandemic.”