I‘ve served in fire and rescue for 32 years in all – 18 months in the Air Force fire service, then I was in Cheshire fire and rescue service for just over 30 years.
I originally joined for what I saw as an exciting and challenging job, with the opportunity for promotion to a command role. I liked the excitement, danger, risk and responsibility of the role.
Serving as an officer in the fire service is a massive personal undertaking. It ceases to be a job and becomes who you are.
This level of dedication can cause personal stress. Also, most of the people in your life outside of work have never seen or been involved in a traumatic event, so this can lead to you feeling alone, different, or isolated from family and friends.
Partners have often commented on feeling 'second to the job', and tried to support me through some difficult times due to work-related stress. This, in my case, has resulted in a number of relationship breakdowns.
In my command roles, I served as a frontline responding officer for over 24 years, dealing with every type of incident, including fires, chemicals, road traffic collisions and explosives incidents.
You manage to get through some very traumatic events, only to have to face it again and again.
This all started to have a wearing effect on me, and I eventually developed physical health problems, and then mental health issues around 25 years into my career.
I started, without at first noticing, to become very cynical about life, thinking “what’s the point?” I became more introverted, wanting to spend more time alone. I started drinking more and began to lose interest in my hobbies, friends and partner. I’d sometimes spontaneously recall a traumatic incident, seeing them in my mind, and become upset about it privately.
During the development of my mental health issues, I spoke with my sister and my adult daughter. Their words of support and acceptance of my situation were what guided me to seek professional help.
I eventually saw my GP, though I didn't feel the NHS really understood my issues. I also didn't want to raise it at work, as I didn't want admit what was happening. So I just carried on with my duties.
I attended a particular multiple fatal incident, this particular one involving a whole family of six. Following this, my symptoms increased: flashbacks, apprehension, self-doubt, anxiety, sadness, anger, and so on. I started to have physical issues with my lungs, coughing, serious infections and pain. I had to book on non-operational duties for the first time, having never before taken a day sick in my career.
In the end I went to the occupational health unit. I was referred to a doctor who was ex-Royal Navy, with a specialisation in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He was the one who eventually diagnosed me with PTSD. His procedures, guidance and wise words helped me a lot. For the first time, I trusted someone who understood the nature of an officer’s role – his background in service helped me with that.
Since retiring in May 2015, I have been working with the Fire Officers Association (FOA) and helping with the Mind Blue Light programme. I continue to have some mental health issues. Some days it’s a struggle; on other days I'm elated. Though the ups and downs continue, I'm facing my situation and keeping intellectually and physically busy to cope.
For those who experience mental health problems, my advice is to be self-aware, expect ups and downs, and the unpredictable nature of the mind, and help those close to you to try to understand how these symptoms can affect you. Personal fitness has also really helped me cope.
If you’re a friend or family member of someone who experiences a mental health problem, my advice is to try to be aware of their condition, and understand they may have mood swings, changes, and whatever other symptoms they exhibit. You can then try to modify living conditions and events, and otherwise help to manage situations for the best. You can also try to find out more about mental health problems by looking at the guidance on the Mind website.