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Supporting someone in the fire service

This information is for anyone who wants to support someone in the fire service, whether you’re a colleague, friend, family member or partner.

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Members of the fire service deal with a lot in their roles. Supporting distressed members of the public, working unusual shift patterns, and being in high pressure situations can have a big impact on their mental health. And these pressures have been made even harder since the pandemic.

Having support from the people around us can make a huge difference when we’re struggling with our mental health. You might have a friend, family member or partner in the fire service. You might be in the service yourself. But you might be unsure of the best way to support your colleague or loved one.

This information has some ideas on how to support someone in the fire service with their mental health. There’s also information on what to do if you think it’s an emergency, and how to look after yourself, too.

How to support someone with their mental health

It can be difficult to see someone you care about becoming unwell, but you don't need to be an expert on mental health to offer support. Often small, everyday actions can make the biggest difference.

Show your support

If you know someone has been unwell, don't be afraid to ask how they are. They might want to talk about it, or they might not. But just letting them know they don't have to avoid the issue with you is important. Spending time with the person lets them know you care, and can help you understand what they're going through.

Our 2021 research showed that support from colleagues was an important coping mechanism during the pandemic for members of the fire service, especially for those working on the frontline. People talked about their team as being like a family who they could talk to about anything.

Ask how you can help

Everyone will want support at different times and in different ways, so ask how you can help. And depending on your relationship with the person, there are different things you could do. For example:

  • Helping them help keep track of their medication
  • Going with them to a doctor's appointment
  • Exercising together, if your colleague or loved one wants to be more active
  • Going with them if they want to speak to a manager or support service at work

Be open-minded

Phrases like 'cheer up', 'I'm sure it'll pass' and 'pull yourself together' don't help. Try to be non-judgemental and listen.

Don't just talk about mental health

Having a mental health problem is just one aspect of the person’s life. Most people don't want to be defined by their mental health problem, so keep talking about the things you've always talked about together. If you work with the person, try to involve them in conversations at work like you usually would.

Show trust and respect

A mental health problem can damage someone’s self-esteem. Showing trust and respect with the person can help to rebuild and maintain that sense of self-esteem. Knowing your support is having a positive impact can help you to cope, too.

“Without my friends and family (and the TV!) I would have found things a lot harder. They have encouraged me to keep going, to get out and walk.” – Becci, operations manager

Helping someone to get support

Our 2021 research showed us that emergency responders were more likely to seek advice about their mental health from friends and family, over any other avenue of support. So you can play an important part in helping them to get the support they need.

If your friend, family member or colleague lets you know that they’re ready to seek help for their mental health problem, here are some things you can do to support them:

  • Listen. Simply giving someone space to talk, and listening to how they're feeling, can help. If they're finding it too difficult right now, let them know you're there when they’re ready.
  • Offer reassurance. Seeking help can feel lonely, and sometimes scary. You can reassure them by letting them know they’re not alone, and that you’re there to help.
  • Stay calm. Even though it might be upsetting to hear that someone you care about is distressed, try to stay calm. This will help the person feel calmer too, and show them that they can talk openly without upsetting you.
  • Be patient. You might want to know more details about their thoughts and feelings, or want them to get help immediately. But it's important to let them set the pace for seeking support themselves.
  • Try not to make assumptions. Your perspective might be useful to the person, but try not to assume that you know what’s caused their feelings, or what will help.
  • Keep social contact. Part of the support you offer could be to keep things as normal as possible. You could involve the person in social events at work, or talk about other parts of your lives.
  • Look for information that might be helpful. When someone is seeking help they may feel worried about making the right choice, or feel that they have no control over their situation. There’s tailored mental health information for people in the emergency services on Blue Light Together, including information on organisations which can offer support.
  • Go to appointments with them, if they want you to – even just being there in the waiting room can help someone feel reassured. If you work together, you could go with them when they speak to occupational health or their manager.
  • Learn more about the problem they experience, to help you think about other ways you could support them. Our website has lots of information about different types of mental health problems, including pages on what friends and family can do to help.

“I have a tendency to withdrawn when I feel stressed or anxious. The important thing that helps me is reaching out to my family and friends and just telling them how I am feeling.” – Mairead, team leader

What if they don't want my help?

If you feel that someone you care about is clearly struggling but can't or won't reach out for help, and won't accept any help you offer, it's understandable to feel frustrated, distressed and powerless. But it's important to accept that they’re an individual, and there are always limits to what you can do to support someone else.
You can:

  • Be patient. You won't always know the full story, and there may be reasons why they’re finding it difficult to ask for help.
  • Offer emotional support . Let them know you care about them and you'll be there if they change their mind.
  • Let them know how to seek help when they're ready. For example, you could show them our pages on talking to your GP and what might happen at the appointment.
  • Look after yourself, and make sure you don't become unwell yourself.

You can’t:

  • Force someone to talk to you. It can take time for someone to feel able to talk openly. Putting pressure on them might make them feel less comfortable telling you about their experiences.
  • Force someone to get help (if they're over 18, and it's not an emergency situation). As adults, we’re all ultimately responsible for making our own decisions. This includes when – or if – we choose to seek help when we’re unwell.
  • See a doctor for someone else. A doctor might give you general information about symptoms or diagnoses, but they won't be able to share any specific advice or details about someone else without their agreement.

Our 2021 research showed us that there are still barriers stopping emergency responders from seeking support, like worrying the issue isn’t serious enough, or worrying about the stigma of seeking support. You can reassure the person by letting them know that it’s always OK to seek help – and often, this will be the best way to help them get better.

What to do if it's an emergency

There may be times when the person needs help more urgently, such as if they:

  • Have harmed themselves and need medical attention
  • Are having suicidal feelings, and feel they may act on them
  • Are putting themselves or someone else at immediate, serious risk of harm

Read what to do in an emergency.

How to look after yourself

Supporting someone else can be challenging. Making sure that you look after your own wellbeing can mean that you have the energy, time and distance to help someone else.

  • Take a break when you need it. If you're feeling overwhelmed by supporting someone or it's taking up a lot of time or energy, taking some time for yourself can help you feel refreshed.
  • If you’re working in the fire service too, you might be facing your own pressures. Make sure you’re focusing on yourself, not just the other person.
  • Talk to someone you trust about how you're feeling. You may want to be careful about how much information you share about the person you're supporting, but talking about your own feelings to a friend can help you feel supported too.
  • Set boundaries and be realistic about what you can do. Your support is really valuable, but it's up to the person to seek support for themselves. Remember that small, simple things can help, and that just being there for them is probably helping a lot.
  • Share your caring role with others, if you can. It's often easier to support someone if you're not doing it alone.

For more ideas about how to keep yourself well, see our pages on:

This information was published in May 2022. We will revise it in 2025.

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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