Suffolk's fire service takes action to tackle poor mental health among staff after firefighter's death
PUBLISHED: 18:49 14 June 2017 | UPDATED: 19:04 14 June 2017
The boss of Suffolk's fire service has agreed to sign a pledge to challenge mental health stigma within the brigade and to ensure staff are able to ask for help if they are feeling low.
Mark Hardingham said he was taking this action in honour of retired firefighter Tony Bickers, 53, who died when he was hit by a train at Mellis level crossing last year.
He added: “After Tony passed away the Fire Brigades Union contacted me and said what could we do together to recognise that Tony had those mental health challenges, and let’s try and do something positive off the back of it so we remember Tony in a positive way and he leaves a legacy.”
Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) has a team taking part in the Great East Run and Swim events this year in aid of charity Mind, which created the pledge as part of its Blue Light Programme, helping staff and volunteers in the emergency services with their emotional wellbeing.
Research from Mind shows that workers in this field are even more at risk of experiencing a mental health problem than the general population, but are less likely to seek support.
Mr Hardingham, who is competing in the swim, said: “It is a problem in the fire service because of the sorts of incidents they go to and the stuff they see throughout their careers.
“As much as I would like the fire service to be equal in terms of men and women, that’s not that case, and I think my experience is that men tend to be pretty rubbish about talking about how they feel.
“As an organisation that is primarily male I think we need to help people to open up and talk about their emotions. They bottle it up and eventually there’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Station commander and performance improvement manager for SFRS, Sally Hammond, is joining Mr Hardingham in the Great East Swim this weekend, along with coworkers Dale Mason, Emma Graham, Craig Chidlow and Alex Stephenson.
Mrs Hammond lost her brother, who was a police officer elsewhere in the country, to suicide in September last year after a battle with depression and anxiety, and she hopes by signing the pledge it will encourage her colleagues to come forward if they are struggling.
She said: “We don’t talk about it enough and if by doing this we can stimulate that conversation and get it so it is the norm to talk about mental health then great.
“Even if they start talking about the challenging incidents. People are living with that all the time and sometimes they go along to an incident and then forget about it, but then something else might change in their life and it hits them. These things don’t go away and we need to talk about these issues and say ‘it’s OK not to be OK and it’s OK to talk about that’.”
SFRS will be represented in the Great East Run by Ed Trevaskis and Mr Mason, who will take on the race in his fire fighting kit.
As part of signing the pledge, the fire service has put together an ‘action plan’ detailing what it will do to follow through on the agreement.
Mr Hardingham said the brigade’s focus was on preventing mental illness in staff, and providing people with the right help if they did find themselves in a dark place.
He added: “I want our fire service to be a great place for the 700 odd people we employ, and part of that is making sure they are in a supportive environment and if they want to there is a culture where they can talk to colleagues or a manager about how they feel.”
Jon Neal, chief executive of Suffolk Mind, said it was great that SFRS was signing the Blue Light Time to Change Pledge.
He added: “People working in our essential blue light services may be more likely than those in other professions to witness events which are distressing. Often it is only their colleagues, the people they share those challenging experiences with, that can fully understand and relate.
“Whatever we do on a daily basis, our ability to cope with distressing events depends a lot on how well our emotional needs are currently met.
“When these or other needs are unmet, if we feel unsafe at work, isolated, or lacking control over our lives, this affects our ability to cope – in other words our resilience is compromised, which can leave us vulnerable to stress and mental ill health.
“Ensuring that, as much as possible, people in vital services are supported to get their emotional needs met, gives them the best chance of maintaining resilience when it’s most needed.”
To sponsor SFRS’s Great East team, see here.