I’ve been in the fire and rescue service for almost 29 years. During this time I’ve performed a number of different roles, including operational firefighter, community fire safety officer, and operational crew manager.
I first experienced mental health problems within my first year in the service. I’d attended a number of particularly horrendous fatal incidences, which ended up having quite an effect on me.
I didn’t realise it at first. I knew something was not right but I didn’t understand what was going on. I was having nightmares, flashbacks, and bouts of bad depression. I tried to get through it all for a number of years until eventually, in 1999, I started experiencing suicidal thoughts and feelings.
Then one day, I went to the GP for a back problem, and I ended up having a total breakdown right then and there. It was completely out of the blue, and it shocked both of us. Luckily, my GP was able to find me a counsellor, who I saw once a week for about five months.
This was a difficult time for me. Not only was I dealing with my mental health problems, but my marriage was also breaking down and I was having some financial issues. I was then made to go back to work before I was ready.
When I returned to work, the reception from managers and colleagues was mostly negative. Most of them put a lot of distance between us. I don’t think they were being nasty, they just didn’t know how to react. There were also some people who genuinely didn’t believe that I was suffering a mental health problem – they thought that I was putting it on.
There were only one or two people who treated me like normal, and that was exactly what I needed. There was one colleague in particular who was really helpful. He continued to involve me in the name-calling and banter, and made me feel like I was still a member of the family. He himself had experienced some mental health issues in the past, so I think he understood that to be treated normally was the most important thing for me at the time.
My advice for people who want to support their colleagues but don’t know how to start?
Just start by asking them, “Are you okay?” then wait for them to tell you how they’re feeling. They may not want to talk at that moment, and it’s important to let them choose the pace that feels right for them. But let them know that when that they’re ready to talk, you’re available.
Even just recently, after having a really low day, a couple of people at work took the time to ask me, “Are you alright? If you need to talk, you know where I am.” It was really powerful just to hear those words.
You should also take the time to learn about mental health. Mental health is something that we all have, and mental health problems can affect any of us at any time. If you wanted to, you could book yourself into a mental health awareness course, or a mental health first aid course like I did.
I’ve now been living with my mental health problems for 27 years. I have my good days and my bad days, but I’ve worked out strategies to help me cope. I’m also getting better responses from colleagues, which makes a huge difference.
You don’t have to be an expert to support someone going through a mental health issue. Even if you don’t have particular knowledge and experience, sometimes all you need to do is show that you care.