We need to talk about mental health in our search and rescue services

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Posted on 12/02/2018 |

Steve volunteers for a search and rescue (SAR) service. He blogs on mental health and why SAR teams need to talk about it more.

“The reason I became a Blue Light Champion within my search and rescue service, raising awareness of mental health problems and where to get support, is simple – it’s the right thing to do!

“Having served 33 years in the Army, 23 as a Combat Medic, followed by 10 years commissioned service before I joined my search and rescue team I thought ‘I’ve seen it all and it’s done me no harm’; but has it? The military likes to teach you all about teamwork and the team is everything so what happens when you as an individual have an issue that if you shared it, may affect that team cohesion?

“Looking back over my life, I was bullied at school and during my early years in the army, have worked in extreme situations in both the Gulf War and Iraq, where I helped many casualties with severe injuries and have experienced the loss of many teammates along the way. Towards the end of that career I watched a friend go down the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) road and have his career taken away. All of this and along the way I lost a niece in a road-traffic accident as well as my marriage breaking down. So do I, or have I, suffered with a mental health issue? The answer is easy; I don’t know!

The team is everything so what happens when you as an individual have an issue that if you shared it, may affect that team cohesion?

“What I do know is we didn’t talk about mental health. We perceived it as a sign of weakness even five years ago, as I watched a friend be decimated by PTSD, who didn’t want to admit something was wrong for fear of the consequences. Unfortunately, whether clinically or perceptually he was right, his career was gone. The biggest thing I took away from that final experience was another simple question; could someone have done something earlier?

“That’s where I feel the Blue Light Programme has its worth; the need to break down perceptions and barriers to encourage individuals to firstly say ’I think I’ve got a problem’ and secondly so others are comfortable to ask ’Are you OK, is something troubling you?’ in a non-judgmental manner. This should then initiate the conversations that are key to helping individuals find their path to recovery and then it’s down to the organisation to support the individual.

We didn’t talk about mental health. We perceived it as a sign of weakness even five years ago.

“Why do I think this is relevant to our search and rescue community? Well, as with our other emergency services colleagues we see people at their worst through the nature of our activity; be that during their own mental health crisis or when they may have met an untimely end. Then what do we do after six hours of searching; cold, wet and hungry? We jump in our cars and go home.

“I would like to believe that with my role as the Medical Lead at Hampshire Search & Rescue Dogs I can save the trauma patient, the collapsed diabetic or even the individual that needs support in their own crisis. My biggest worry is how do I make sure that you, the team member, can go home with a clear head and not be the next mental health casualty?

“Recently as I sat watching TV someone said ’we are all as sick as our secrets’ and I would say that this hits the proverbial nail on the head and is the issue we need to tackle. We need to create environments within organisations that are non-judgemental, accessible to all and supportive of the individual but most importantly have a system that does not just turn into a tick box exercise. We need managers, and by that I mean anyone in a supporting role, and individuals, to be confident in having face to face or at least voice to voice conversations. An email that says ‘I hope you are OK’ may not be enough; why not pick up the phone?

My biggest worry is how do I make sure that you, the team member, can go home with a clear head.

“Currently I am investigating how we can get a group of Blue Light Champions, Mental Health First Aiders, and individuals that have travelled that troubled road together to form a supportive hub for individuals across our Hampshire search and rescue community; it’s early days yet but as they say ‘it’s good to talk’.

“I spoke at the Blue Light Programme workshop on mental health in search and rescue services at the UKSAR Conference. This opportunity to share my experiences was a great step in raising the awareness of not only mental health issues but of the work we as Blue Light Champions are trying to achieve.”

The Duke of Cambridge attended the UK Search and Rescue Conference in Birmingham as a delegate. The Duke attended two workshops, both focused on mental health, one of which was our Blue Light Programme workshop.

Mind’s Blue Light Programme offers free support to our search and rescue services. Find out more here.

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