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Emergency responders: your mental health in the pandemic

This page is also available in Welsh.

In the emergency services, dealing with difficult situations has always been part of your job. But the Covid-19 pandemic has been especially challenging, distressing and traumatic for many people in the ambulance, police, fire and rescue services. If you're struggling to cope right now, you are not alone. Your mental health matters, and you deserve support.

On this page you can find out about:

Common feelings among emergency responders

We know that the pandemic isn't affecting everyone the same way. There are different challenges across law enforcement, medical emergency response, and fire and rescue. And experiences may vary depending on where you usually work, or how long you've been in your job. It might feel like no one understands exactly what you are dealing with.

But we've heard many emergency responders recently sharing similar struggles. If you can relate to any of the feelings or experiences below, you are not alone:

  • Exhausted or burnt out from working longer hours, picking up extra shifts and doing unfamiliar tasks. You might be dealing with new rules and tasks to keep people safe on top of your usual job. You might also have been looking after your children, elderly family members or other dependents on top of work.
  • Stressed by making tough decisions every day about what or who to prioritise in your work. For ideas on helping yourself, see our pages on dealing with pressure and developing resilience.
  • Lonely, isolated or unsettled, especially if your normal workplace or team has changed. You might have moved into a different team, a smaller team, or no longer work with the same colleagues or communities. You might also have been avoiding contact with your friends and family to keep them safe. Even in your time off, you might not feel like socialising because of how tired you are. For self-care ideas, see our tips to manage loneliness.

“Personally, with all of the added stress, I am having difficulty with switching off. At work, we are making life-changing decisions in more difficult situations than ever before.” Ben, Ambulance Service

  • Anxious, worried or panicky about the possibility of unknowingly passing the virus on to people you live with or care for, or spreading it among the public. Or about contracting the virus yourself and becoming ill or unable to do your job. You may also feel uncomfortable or anxious about wearing a mask for long hours.
  • Guilty or inadequate for not being able to help everyone, as the volume of call-outs has been so high. This could leave you with feelings of failure, even though you're working harder than ever.
  • Low, sad or numb from dealing with death much more often than before the pandemic.

“A few sleepless nights followed before my first deployment and sitting around waiting for someone to die became my new state of readiness. The call-outs came thick and fast.” – Jane, Police Service

  • Conflicted about enforcing strict or confusing Covid-19 control measures and regulations. New rules aren’t always clear or easy for the public to follow, and might not always feel right to you. And it may feel harder to show people in distress that you're trying help them when you have to cover your face. 
  • Overwhelmed by grief when it feels like you're regularly losing close colleagues in the pandemic, but you haven't been able to honour them like you want to. We have some self-care tips for dealing with bereavement, and some tips on how to support someone who has been bereaved.
  • Demoralised or disempowered. For example, you might find you feel frustrated hearing politicians talk about 'heroes', when your support needs still aren't always being heard or met. And especially in the police, seeing your profession coming under public scrutiny in the news and on social media may sometimes feel upsetting or demotivating when you’re working as hard as you can.
  • Undeserving of support, or ashamed about struggling to cope. It's common in the services to feel like you should always prioritise other people's health and wellbeing above your own, or that your problems aren't important compared to what other people are struggling with. But this isn't true. Your mental health matters too. It’s always ok to ask for help for your mental health.

“Not seeing people has been really, really hard. That has probably affected my mental health more than anything else. It’s what human beings are meant to do isn’t it?” Kirit, Police Service

Trauma and PTSD

Going through very stressful, frightening or distressing events is sometimes called trauma. This is a common experience among emergency responders – especially since the pandemic began.

Some difficult feelings and behaviours you are having may in fact be very normal reactions to trauma. Understanding this might help you process your emotions.

Trauma doesn't automatically lead to mental health problems, but it can make you vulnerable to developing conditions like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Find out more in our pages about trauma and PTSD.

PTSD and the ambulance service

"I’d often find myself just sat there, not really doing anything but thinking about the job, and thinking about whether there was anything else I could have done."

Practical tips for managing your mental health

When it’s your job to help others, it can feel hard to take time to look after yourself. But your mental health matters. Whether you work in the police, fire or ambulance services, here are some ideas to help take care of your wellbeing:

  • Talk to your colleagues. You may want to open up to a colleague who understands your experiences. Or you may prefer to speak to someone outside of your team or workplace, for a different view on things. Our page on opening up about your mental health has some tips on starting the conversation.
  • Chat with people close to you outside of work. When you have a break in the day, try to get in touch with a friend or relative from outside of work. Make plans to video chat, phone or send messages or texts if you don’t feel like talking.

“Talking to my colleague probably saved my life. Having the chance to open up to someone was the beginning of a process that ended with me being correctly diagnosed and treated for the mental health problem I was living with.” Neil, Ambulance Service

  • Do a body scan before or after your shift. This is where you deliberately move your attention down your body. Start from the top of your head and move slowly to the end of your toes. Try focusing on feelings of warmth, tension, tingling or relaxation of different parts of your body. This exercise can help you focus your attention on the present.
  • Try mindful meditation on a break. Mindfulness might help you feel calmer and less stressed. Stop for a moment outside, take a deep breath and take notice of what you can see, hear, touch or smell. Notice any clouds, trees and plants you can see. If you can't go outside you could look through a window, or just notice what's around you. See our pages on mindfulness for more information.
  • Take care with news and social media. It can be helpful to stay connected with current events and people. But sometimes it might feel overwhelming, or leave you feeling upset or confused. You could try only looking at the news at certain times of day, or setting limits on how much you use social media apps on your phone.

“Throughout the pandemic, I’ve spoken more freely about how I was coping, and tried not to bottle anything up. I also have a great group of friends, regularly doing video chats, setting challenges and creating workouts to share.” Nakita, Fire Service

  • Try your best with your physical health. You probably know that a balanced diet and regular exercise are good for boosting your mood, but it may feel hard to do this under the pressure of work right now. For example, stressful shift patterns may be affecting your appetite, and changes in your routine can make it difficult to build in regular exercise. Do make healthy choices whenever you can, but don't be too hard on yourself if things have slipped a little during the pandemic. It won't be like this forever. Our pages on food and mood and physical activity have more tips.
  • Move away from unhealthy coping mechanisms. When things are hard it's tempting to use alcohol, drugs or food as a way of dealing with your feelings day to day. But this can make your mental health worse in the long-run. If you know you have a difficult relationship with one of these, our pages on recreational drugs and alcohol and eating problems might help.
  • Seek professional mental health support. When you're struggling to cope and your usual self-care isn't enough, support from a professional can make a difference. This could be something like counselling or therapy, or medication, or both. The pandemic has made your job harder than ever, and there is no shame in seeking help for a mental health problem. You might feel worried about stigma, but it is always OK to seek help.

“Since I have spoken out, other colleagues including senior officers have told me how they went through that 20 years ago or whatever it was. It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one, that people do get through it and progress.” Richard, Fire Service

A blue light on top of a vehicle

Supporting police mental wellbeing through Covid-19 and BLM

“Officers are feeling 'stretched in two directions' – caught between their police and home communities, with their job causing strain in relationships with friends and family.

Where to find further mental health support

There are many resources, services and organisations offering support tailored to you and your role:

Samaritans offer a 24/7 support line. Call 116 123 if you want to talk to someone about how you're feeling at any time.

Support from your workplace

Try asking your supervisor, line manager or colleagues if you can access specialist support, such as:

  • Trauma Risk Management (TRiM)
  • Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD)
  • an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) helpline
  • counselling services
  • peer support groups.

If you are a student paramedic, police cadet or at fire college, 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.

For further support and guidance, not exclusively for emergency responders, see our pages on:

"My main support through the whole situation this year has been people who are in the same boat as me." Nikki, Fire Service

This information was published on March 31, 2021.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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