We are also fighting a pandemic in mental health

Ben Hawkins is an Emergency Dispatcher for the East of England Ambulance Service. In this blog, he shares his own tips on coping with an increased workload, and offers advice and support for those experiencing poor mental wellbeing during the winter lockdown.

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Please note this blog includes discussion of suicide.

Things have always been tough going working for the ambulance service. We are exposed to what is some people’s worst day in their entire life every day. Every year, we see an increased demand of what is called ‘winter pressure’ – we thought that winter pressures were bad, but they are nothing compared to this pandemic. And the first lockdowns were busy, but nothing like this 3rd one.

I feel we are not only fighting a coronavirus pandemic but also a suicide pandemic. We are seeing more suicides than we usually do and this is of course affecting us all. When taking 999 calls it can often be similar to this: “COVID”, “Mental health”, “COVID”, “Mental health”, “COVID”. There’s the odd few calls about chest pains or falls – but mainly COVID or mental health calls.

“We have to keep going because the entire country is relying on us”

The mental impact for us as blue light emergency service workers is immense. We are in the same boat as everyone else. We go to work too and are faced with the demand that we’ve not seen before. We then return to our houses and it is just like being trapped inside. I am struggling as much as everyone else is, but we have to keep going because the entire country is relying on blue light workers to keep the country safe.

Personally, with all of the added stress, I too am having difficulty with switching off. At work, we are making life changing decisions in more difficult situations than ever before. These decisions are ones we are taking home with us, and I guess you could say we are second guessing – although we know that deep down we made the best decision we could.

A man takes a thoughtful break

Mental health plays tricks on us in two different ways. Sometimes I feel low when I’m trapped at home and, despite being surrounded by family, I can feel really alone and out of place. Other times I feel there is so much going on in my head and so many things I need to do and not enough time that I feel so stressed. The things I find are useful when I’m not feeling myself are:

  • Creating a routine. This is just making sure that every day I get up, shower and get dressed. I make sure that I never stay in PJs as this feeling doesn’t tend to help.
  • Go out of the house for fresh air every day and walk for around 40 mins.
  • Contact a friend every day. A lack of socialising is a big reason we are suffering. Some of my friends have set up quizzes to keep them busy.
  • Sometimes I find music is the best therapy. Someone once told me to put my headphones in and blast out a song that was upbeat and brought back a good memory. This song for me is Calvin Harris’s song Feel So Close. Once you have your favourite song, you need to blast it out as loud as you like. Close your eyes and just let feel the energy that the song gives you. Sometimes I scream the lyrics out loud! But this works for me.
  • Sometimes, when my head has too much going on, music doesn’t work for me. I have to lay on my bed and ask Alexa to play some mediation music. Just focusing on your breathing with your eyes closed can really help!

“Put you first!”

If things do not get better, then I ask my blue light colleagues to seek some support from work or from a colleague. At least speak to someone who is around you that knows what to do. Asking for help is the most difficult thing to do and I know that from personal experience. There are several days where I have to do these things and often, I have to listen to a song to keep me going. Often people who try to end their life do not actually want to end their lives. They want the pain they are feeling to end. Please think about this and put you first! There is nothing wrong with admitting to being mentally unwell but there is everything wrong with not asking for help if you aren’t coping.

“Please, seek help or support if you are struggling it just takes one message to someone or a call to say “I’m not okay”.

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.