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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We know the pandemic isn’t over. But parts of society are starting to return to the way they were before.
As a responder in the search and rescue service, you might notice that some things at work, or in your home life, aren’t going back to the way they were before.
There might be new rules during your shift, or more jobs to respond to than before the pandemic. You might feel differently about your role to how you did previously. And for some things, you might not want them to go back to the way they were before.
This information might help you to make sense of what you’ve seen and experienced during coronavirus (covid-19). 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.
During the pandemic, you might have dealt with lots of things you found difficult, and not had the time to think about them properly. 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 feeling throughout the pandemic. 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.
During the pandemic, 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:
“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.
“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
“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
See our information on bereavement.
“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
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 feel like coronavirus has taken away some of the love and enjoyment you once had for your job, you might find these tips helpful.
We have more tips for taking care of yourself when going into work during coronavirus. If you're a volunteer, you might still 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
The NHS has more information about how to deal with change and uncertainty during coronavirus.
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. The following things might help you to regain some positivity.
We don’t know might happen in the future. During your shifts, some things might be returning to how they were before. If you were working from home, you might be returning to your usual workplace, and seeing colleagues again. If you volunteer on the ground, the calls you attend might have become more similar to how they were before the pandemic.
And there may be some things which still feel different. You might still have strict hygiene measures in place. Your caseload might not be back to pre-pandemic levels.
You might find it helpful to have some strategies in place for how you’ll cope with the future, and any feelings of uncertainty or worry you might have. The following things might be helpful:
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:
Ask your supervisor, line manager or colleagues if you can access specialist support. Some of the following things may be helpful:
If you are 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
We know it can be difficult to reach out for help at work, 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.
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.
“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.”
“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 October 2021. We will revise it in 2022.
References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.