This information is for anyone in the search and rescue service, whether you’re in a voluntary role, a paid position, manage a team, or help people by responding to calls.
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As a member of the search and rescue service, you deal with a lot. And the things you experience on a daily basis can have an enormous impact on your mental health.
The pandemic may have made your job even harder. And even though a lot of society has gone back to the way it was before, you might still be dealing with feelings and experiences you had during coronavirus (covid-19).
This information might help you to make sense of the things you see and experience in the search and rescue service. It’s not a replacement for mental health treatment and support. But it may give you some tools to help you understand how you’re feeling, and some tips on how to cope with these feelings.
We experience many different feelings every day. Feelings can help guide us in how to respond to the situations we find ourselves in. But often, we can’t give a name to every feeling we’re having, when we have it.
Because of the role and service you’re in, you might have been dealing with lots of things you’ve found difficult, and not had the time to think about them properly. This might be especially true of things which happened during coronavirus. You might be having feelings now, as a result of something that happened a while ago.
Identifying some of the feelings you’re having now might help you to understand what could have caused them. And once you know the causes, you might feel better prepared for how to deal with these feelings.
“We see people at their worst through the nature of our activity. Then what do we do after six hours of searching – cold, wet and hungry? We jump in our cars and go home.” – Steve, volunteer in the search and rescue service
Recognising how you’re feeling might help you to understand why you reacted the way you did to certain situations in the past. For example, you might have had a sleepless night, and not associated it with the stressful calls you’d taken that day. Maybe you had an argument with someone you care about, without really knowing why.
Putting your feelings into words could help you to understand the emotions you’re having. There are different ways you can do this, and everyone’s preferences will be different. Here are some suggestions:
Below are some of the things members of the search and rescue service have told us they’ve been through in their roles. You might be experiencing some of these, and may also be having feelings which aren’t listed here.
When we say things like "this is stressful" or "I'm stressed", we might mean:
If you’re experiencing stress, you might feel:
“I’ve had some stress and sleepless night over incidents I've attended and I know other personnel that have experienced a mental health problem.” – Simon, volunteer in the search and rescue service
Anxiety is what we feel when we are worried, tense or afraid, particularly about things that are about to happen, or which we think could happen in the future.
Anxiety can affect:
Moral injury describes a set of feelings you might have if you’ve had to do things, or see things, which go against your values and beliefs.
Because of coronavirus, you might have been forced to make some difficult decisions while working or volunteering. For example, you might have had to prioritise caring for one person, while knowing there were others who also needed your help. This might make you feel conflicted, or like you could have done more.
If you’re experiencing moral injury, you might feel:
When you’re repeatedly looking after people in distressing or difficult circumstances, this can leave you feeling physically and mentally exhausted. You can end up feeling like you don’t care about people as much as you used to. This is sometimes known as compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue might make you feel:
Going through very stressful, frightening or distressing events is sometimes called trauma. Everyone has a different reaction to trauma. You might notice the effects quickly. Or you might not notice them until a long time afterwards.
A traumatic event might make you feel:
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health problem you may develop after experiencing traumatic events. Emergency services staff and volunteers are routinely exposed to distressing and traumatic incidents, as well as having demanding workload pressures. As a result, they’re more at risk of developing PTSD than the general population.
We have more information on PTSD, including the causes, some of the symptoms you might experience, and the support you could get.
“I remember on one occasion, we were dealing with a serious fatality. The whole incident kind of imprinted itself on my brain.” – Nick, search and rescue team leader
Fatigue and burnout are more than feelings of being tired. Burnout can happen if you’re constantly under lots of pressure from work. It can make you feel:
“I had been working away for long periods, working long hours and I was exhausted. I hadn't realised that my resilience was dropping until I dealt with a serious incident.”
Some people find it hard identify how they’re feeling, especially if they’ve been through something traumatic. This is sometimes known as dissociation.
If you dissociate, you may feel disconnected from yourself and the world around you. For example, you may feel detached from your body or feel as though the world around you is unreal. Dissociation is one way the mind copes with too much stress, such as during a traumatic event.
We have more information on dissociation, including tips on how to take care of yourself when you dissociate.
Once you understand what it is you’re feeling, you can start to think about what could have caused some of these feelings. This might make you feel better prepared for how to deal with them.
Some of the things in this list might be contributing to how you’re feeling now. You might also have had experiences which aren’t included here.
“Dealing with the day to day calls and incidents in addition to the day to day running of an emergency service can be as stressful sometimes, if not more, than an incident itself.” – Simon, volunteer in the search and rescue service
“When I first joined the team in the early nineties, we were doing around 60 rescues per year. Now we regularly attend 100-120 rescues a year.” – Nick, search and rescue team leader
Losing someone important to us can be emotionally devastating, and bereavement can have a huge impact on our mental health.
During the pandemic, you may have lost loved ones to coronavirus or other illnesses. You may not have been able to be there for them in the way you would have wanted. You may also have missed out on funerals, or not been able to hold a funeral in the way you imagined.
We have more information on bereavement, including places where you can get support.
“Mountain rescue can be quite stressful at times. We deal with difficult situations including casualties who have taken their own lives.” – Izzy, mountain rescue service
You might have felt like during the pandemic, you were missing out on the rewarding or enjoyable parts of your job. Or, like you weren’t getting the search and rescue service experience you were expecting. You might still feel like this, and you might feel like you’ve lost the love you once had for the job.
For many of us, the pandemic meant that things we hoped would happen, or looked forward to, suddenly felt less likely. And things we feared would happen might have felt closer to coming true. For example:
You don’t have to feel motivated all of the time, and many of us have days where we feel less motivated at work and at home. But if you’re feeling like you’ve lost some of the love and enjoyment you once had for your role, you might find these tips helpful.
“My rescue colleagues have been hugely supportive. Even the tiniest little gesture can mean so much – invites to go climbing, invites for coffee, just someone coming around and dropping in for a chat.” – Nick, search and rescue team leader
We have more information on staying mentally healthy at work, including tips on how to cope with stress.
“There are so many people who have experienced similar things. So it's important to know that you're not alone in feeling this way.” – Nick, search and rescue team leader
It’s very uncommon to feel positive all of the time, and most of us will have periods where we feel better or worse. But working during the pandemic may have left you feeling worse about yourself, your job, or society in general.
Try to be kind to yourself. Notice when you’re thinking negative things about yourself. If you had a difficult shift, are you telling yourself that you should have done better, or that it was your fault when things went wrong? Try to challenge these negative thoughts. Think about the things you did well instead.
You could also take a break from news and social media. During the pandemic especially, it may have felt like all you heard was bad news. Even though coronavirus isn’t in the news as much anymore, watching a lot of news or being on social media a lot can still feel overwhelming. You don’t have to cut them out completely, but you could limit how much time you spend reading them each day.
You could also try to think of some positive things which are happening in your life, or things you feel grateful for. This could be a good news story you heard, a positive conversation you had with a colleague, or a time you laughed recently. You could write down your positive things and reread them when you’re feeling low.
We don’t know what will happen in the future. During your shifts, things might have returned to how they were before the pandemic. And there may be some things, like hygiene measures and the number of jobs you go to, which still feel different.
Having some strategies for how you’ll cope with things as we move out of the pandemic might help with any feelings of uncertainty or worry you might have.
You may have experienced lots of big changes to your life during the pandemic. You may have lost loved ones, or missed out on important events. And when the anniversaries of these moments come around, you might find it brings up some difficult feelings.
It can be helpful to take a moment to think about the events that have had a big impact on your life. If you want to, you could plan something on the date of the event’s anniversary. You could meet up with other people who were affected. Or, you might prefer to spend some time reflecting on your own. You might find these pages helpful:
Seeking help for a mental health problem can be a really important step towards getting and staying well, but it can be hard to know how to start or where to turn to. There are many resources, services and organisations which offer mental health support for people in the search and rescue service.
We know it can be difficult to reach out for help, especially when so much of your job is spent helping others. It can feel like there’s a stigma in search and rescue, where you feel you have to put on a brave face and not admit that you’re struggling. Some people have told us they feel like they’ve ‘failed’ when they admit how much their work has affected their mental health.
It’s always OK to ask for help. Reaching out could help you to get the support you need to feel better. And if you don’t feel comfortable speaking to someone at work, there are other organisations which might be able to help.
If you’re a line manager, think about how you could encourage your team members to come to you if they need to talk. You might find it helpful to read our resources on taking care of your staff. This includes information on how to support your team members, and how to create a mentally healthy workplace.
There isn’t a specific time for when you’re supposed to get mental health support. It's always OK to seek help, even if you're not sure you’re experiencing a specific mental health problem.
You might choose to seek help because:
Read our information on how to seek help for a mental health problem.
“He asked me what was so terrible about admitting that I might have temporary depression. I agreed it was possible and that there was nothing bad about admitting this. This illustrated to me how deeply instilled the stigma can be.”
Ask your supervisor, line manager or colleagues if you can access specialist support. Some of the following things may be helpful:
If you're a student, you might be able to access extra support through your course provider. Our student mental health hub has more tips and resources for anyone who is studying.
“Having someone to talk to when I needed it was probably the biggest help. Having the ability to use the EAP was extremely helpful. They didn't judge or give opinions – they just let me talk through the issues and feelings I had.” – Ross, coastguard rescue
“The first time I saw a counsellor, I broke down in tears. Being able to talk to someone who was non-judgemental helped a lot. More than anything else, she has equipped me with the ability to realise if I am dipping back down again.”
“We are one big 999 family in the emergency services. Look out for your friends and colleagues and support them when they need it. Break the stigma of mental health in our role.” – Andy, search and rescue paramedic
This information was published in May 2022. We will revise it in 2025.
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