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Mind Cymru survey reveals toll of pandemic on ambulance workers' mental health

Wednesday, 31 March 2021 Mind

- Mental health charity reveals ambulance service worst affected when it comes to impact of covid on mental health
- Survey data shows increased prevalence of poor mental health across police, fire and ambulance services, with many staff and volunteers reporting a worsening of mental health over the past year

Data from a survey of more than 250 staff and volunteers across police, fire and ambulance services in Wales has laid bare the scale of poor mental health within the emergency responder communities. The statistics come as Mind Cymru announces the development of their Blue Light Programme of wellbeing support for the emergency services, which has been funded by The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

The online survey found that mental health has worsened across 999 services, but that ambulance staff were worst affected. Only one in three (33 per cent) ambulance staff reported their current mental health as very good or good compared to two in five police (44 per cent) and almost one in two (49 per cent) survey respondents working within the fire service.

Ambulance staff were the most likely (72 per cent) to say their mental health has worsened since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, compared to police (56 per cent) or fire (61 per cent). Staff and volunteers within the ambulance service were also more likely to rate their current mental health as poor or very poor. On average, one in five (20 per cent) of all 999 staff and volunteers surveyed rated their current mental health as poor or very poor. The highest proportion of respondents saying they had poor mental health were within the ambulance service, at almost one in three (30 per cent). This compares to just under one in four (22 per cent) respondents from the police service and just under one in ten (11 per cent) within the fire service who rated their mental health as poor currently.

Responding to these survey findings, Sue O’Leary, Interim Director of Mind Cymru, said:

“We know that even before the coronavirus outbreak, there were high rates of poor mental health across the emergency services. This latest survey shows that the mental health of our emergency responders has got even worse, with ambulance staff and volunteers hardest hit. They are making more difficult and potentially life-and-death decisions on a daily basis, as well as dealing with death and bereavement, in addition to concerns for their own health and wellbeing and that of their loved ones.

Blue light staff have told us that working within the emergency services - especially the ambulance service - is a hugely rewarding but challenging job. The people who responded to our survey have made it clear that the pandemic has made their jobs even more demanding. “It’s really important that our hardworking emergency responders are able to access support for their wellbeing if and when they need it. Thanks to funding from The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s COVID-19 Response Fund, we will be initially looking to make new resources available to support those within blue light services in Wales with a view to extending training and support opportunities.”

Liz Wedley, Area Operations Manager at the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust, set up their Local Pandemic Team in North Wales. She lives in Hawarden and said:

“The pandemic has been really difficult for us. We’ve gone from what was already a busy, highly pressured service to having to deal with a pandemic with the same number of people. It’s been a real stretch. The military and St John assisted at the peak which was a great help and we cannot thank them enough.

“On the one hand, our response to the pandemic created a really strong team environment, where everyone stepped up and pulled together. In the early days, it almost strengthened us. People have become more open about talking about the difficulties they are having with their mental health too, which is a real positive.

“However, as time has gone on, I see more and more people almost running on autopilot, just getting through the working day. They are living on their nerves. Even in a debrief after a traumatic incident, you have to do it in a Covid-19 safe way – you can’t give people a hug if they’re struggling. You never really relax.

“At some point I’m very concerned that all the feelings people are putting to one side are going to come out. How do we, as a service and as a society, support them? The delayed impact is a real worry for me.”

Lucy Morris, a Police Officer working in front line response for Dyfed Powys Police, added:

“The last 12 months has been really difficult. It was really scary to begin with – it was hard to know how we would be able to do our jobs while being faced with such a serious and invisible illness. I’ve had anxiety for a couple of years now and the pandemic hasn’t helped.

“Doing the job has become harder as the months have gone on. The first lockdown was relatively quiet, most people stayed at home and we didn’t get that many call-outs. However the second wave was much more difficult, more people caught Covid-19, and we were short staffed and people began to burn out.

“I’ve found that I’m feeling mentally drained as the months go on, and that is affecting my anxiety. I try to combat it by doing mindful things – taking my dog for a walk, colouring, reading, even rollerskating with members of my team. Anything I can do to switch off for a while.

“I’m glad that Mind’s Blue Light programme is restarting, it gives people the chance to have a chat, talk about how they are feeling, and get some support. It’s something we all need at some time, and particularly at the moment.”

South Wales Fire and Rescue Service, Mental Health Project Lead, Crew Manager David Crews said:

“Staff across the Service have stepped forward to offer support in the fight against Covid-19, including driving ambulances and volunteering at vaccinations centres. Working within an emergency service role brings with it its own unique challenges especially during this pandemic.

Mental wellbeing can be affected by the nature of some of the operational roles within the Service. The pandemic has changed the way we communicate and socialise with each other, this was a key challenge throughout the pandemic. Its fair to say our mental health and wellbeing has been affected by Covid-19 and the true impact of Covid-19 on our mental health won’t be seen for a while yet.

It’s important to recognise that staff and our community still feel anxious around Covid-19.’’

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