Everyone I know has experienced some sort of impact to their mental health

My name is Rebecca Dingvean, but most people call me Becci. I am an Assistant Operations Manager for the London Fire Brigade (LFB) in their control room. I will have been here five years in September.

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I joined the fire service because I wanted to help people – I always have. My father was a police officer in the Metropolitan Police, so I have always grown up around emergency service workers. I had always looked at control operators for the police or the London Ambulance Service, but had never considered the LFB, until my friend shared an advert with me and I went for it! They do great community work and that’s what initially drew me in.

Firefighters at work. Credit: David Crews

 

Before the pandemic my mental health was mainly OK. I live with anxiety and depression, so it is often outside factors that can be a trigger, not necessarily work. Work can be hard, as a control operator you can hear some very traumatic things – incidents can linger with you, or in some cases stay in your memory for the rest of your life. I am only five years into my career and although I have been involved in some very serious incidents, I feel none have ever affected me enough to really impact greatly on my mental health, though that call or that incident could be just around the corner. It is important that I remind myself that it can be a cumulative effect and that although I may not feel affected right now, down the line my ‘emotional bucket’ might creep up to being full.

My day to day role did not change in any way because of Covid-19. We had to come in and continue our roles as normal, because 999 calls do not stop! We stopped all visitors, and all non-control staff were to work from home. We extended our room to allow for social distancing and we began to make slight changes to the types of calls we went to. I still got to see my colleagues.

The only thing that really change for me was meetings – I am the current chair of UnitedMINDs, which is the London Fire Brigade’s mental health support group. Most of these meetings would be held at our headquarters, but the pandemic has meant they have had to go online. Going online was a challenge for me, as I find being social hard at the best of times so to try and do this online is even harder.

“You feel like you cannot escape it”

A couple of months into the first lockdown, I took time off work and spent my time going from my bed to the sofa and back again. I did not want to leave my flat, speak to anyone, and even the TV began to be boring to me. I didn’t realise how tactile of a person I was; I think the lack of touch really affected me. I live on my own, so my fear of not having someone there to help gauge where my mood was at had become reality.

I missed the closeness of friends and family, of hugs and gentle touch on the forearm. Being in a work environment where 24 hours news is vital is understandable, but when all you seen is news around death and the spread of the virus you feel like you cannot escape it. It doesn’t help that with everyone in lockdown unable to do anything there is not a lot else to talk about. Going back to work helped, talking to friends, family and colleagues about other things and focusing on my job really helped me to get out of my mind and back into the world.

The pandemic has had a massive impact on those around me. For example, my friend found out she was pregnant and has had her baby without any of us getting to really experience it with her. My colleagues have had to deal with child care, home schooling, having partners on front line service, not seeing family and more recently the passing of a colleague.

Being a mental health first aider and at the forefront of our mental health support group I have seen an increase in the people that are reaching out to us. I am pleased that our continued efforts seem to be working, and we’re starting to see the results. Everyone I know has experienced some sort of impact to their mental health, and for many this would have been the first time this would have happened. The stresses that usually happen become a lot bigger, the people they live with can become more frustrating, the uncertainty for nearly a year can weigh heavy.

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. We shared shows, books, music, and podcasts. We have checked in with each other, found imaginative ways to celebrate birthdays. Work was a huge help, and going in every shift gave me a small sense of normality. I still get to at least see people from a distance, talk and interact as we usually would. It allowed me to be out of my flat and my mind for a little while.

“Don’t hold it in for too long”

I think my best advice is to reach out, always reach out, don’t hold it in for too long. Most friends and family will probably be feeling similar things to you (hard to believe when you are feeling like that, I know), but if you don’t feel comfortable speaking to someone close then reach out elsewhere. There are so many resources out there, all willing and waiting to listen and support you. Reaching out for me is the first and hardest (and bravest) step you can take. Tiptoe into it if you must but do try and take that step.

I would very much like to finish off by saying that behind every frontline staff there are amazing non-operational staff supporting them in every way – we could not function without them. They have being working from home for nearly a year now and this comes with its own set of challenges which they have risen to. For the London Fire Brigade, some of them have been points of contact for our staff assisting the London Ambulance Service. I want to say thank you to all of them for digging in and carrying on alongside us.

If the issues in this article feel familiar, we hope you’ll share it with colleagues, friends or family to help us spread awareness of the reality of life for emergency responders – and to encourage colleagues to seek help when they need it.