Mental health issues rising in the emergency services cause concern.
This article titled “Why suicide is on the increase among the UK’s police and firefighters” was written by Natalie Roberts and Ann-Marie Abbasah, for The Guardian on Tuesday 17th November 2015 15.00 UTC
Suicides by police officers and firefighters are on the increase, leading to severe concerns about the mental health of people working and volunteering for the emergency services.
A freedom of information request to the Office for National Statistics has found that the number of police officers whose deaths were classified as suicides or undetermined intent almost doubled from 15 in 2009 to 29 in 2013. And figures from the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) show that in the past three years 15 firefighters have taken their own lives. In 2012 and 2013 there were three and two respectively; last year there were five and there have also been five so far this year.
Both the Police Federation, which represents 124,000 officers, and the FBU suspect job cuts, and the increased workloads and stress levels for remaining employees, have led to a deterioration in their members’ mental health.
Since 2010, an estimated 17,000 officer posts have been eliminated across the 43 police forces in England and Wales and another round of cuts, to be announced in this month’s spending review, could see a further 22,000 police jobs cut. The fire and rescue services have suffered a 30% reduction over the same period, resulting in around 7,000 job losses and 40 fire stations closed across the UK
“People are working inordinate hours of overtime for no payment, for the simple reason that they want to do a good job and see the job finished, but it’s an intolerable situation, which can only get worse,” says John Tully, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation. “Increasingly, police officers are put in situations where they feel they’ve let the public down, they feel they’ve let themselves down and they’re ashamed of that because of their professionalism, so it’s no wonder that some do take that last drastic step.”
He adds: “We’ve seen, in the last five years, a 43% increase in sickness absences by police officers in relation to stress and stress-related illnesses.”
Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, and a former firefighter with 30 years’ service, says: “In recent years we have seen the creation of ever more complicated shift patterns as attempts are made to cut costs and job numbers. Some of these include extremely lengthy periods at work.” He points out that a firefighter’s income and pension in real terms has seen a significant decline over the past five years. “All of these factors are having a considerable impact on firefighters’ mental health”, says Wrack.
In late 2014, Mind, the mental health charity, ran an online survey that reached more than 3,500 emergency services staff and volunteers. It found that nearly 9 in 10 people (87%) had experienced stress, low mood and poor mental health at some point while working for the emergency services. As a result, in March, the charity launched a government-funded Blue Light support programme for any of the estimated 250,000 emergency services personnel and volunteers who may experience mental ill-health. It is distributing information booklets, training managers and has registered more than 200 individuals as workplace champions.
But some are taking matters into their own hands. PC Rob Webber from Essex police has set up a support network, Call4Backup, for officers experiencing mental health issues. He founded the organisation after losing a colleague and friend, PC Craig Pledger, 28, to depression earlier this year.
“If officers are having stress at work, if they don’t know what to do, we want to be there, so that people don’t get to the stage where they are diagnosed with depression and anxiety.”
Staffed by volunteers – serving and retired police officers – who will receive training to spot the signs of mental health illnesses, Call4Backup offers support through phone, text and email. Its survey of 500 serving frontline officers found that 67% of participants believed stress levels had increased since cuts began and 70% said they would turn to a colleague for help in relation to their mental health above other avenues.
Each police force has a welfare team, but, Webber says, officers are reluctant to seek help for fear of being disciplined over a sickness record, or of their chances of promotion being affected.
Firefighters, 95% of whom are men, also report a taboo over mental health. One, who did not wish to be named, says: “There are massive highs to the job, being able to help someone, rescue them. But if someone dies it can be crucifying. You think, ‘if I had just used the hydraulic equipment a little bit quicker cutting the roof off that car or if I had just put that fire out faster.’ You blame yourself if someone dies.” Professional counselling is offered by the service immediately after dealing with traumatic events, he says. “Some are able to absorb such support, and it will make a change. But there is a stigma that you might have a mental health issue.”
Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45. A male suicide prevention charity, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (Calm), says social and cultural barriers are responsible for men not seeking help. The Call4Backup survey of police officers found that more than 20% of respondents said they had attempted or contemplated suicide following a mental illness.
The network has already helped a number of officers even before its official launch as a charity.
Mike Penning, the minister for policing, says: “Policing, by its very nature, is a stressful and demanding job and it is the responsibility of chief officers, with help from the College of Policing, to ensure that police officers and staff are supported in their work. This government is doing all it can to make it easier for the police to do their job.”
Paul Hancock, president of the Chief Fire Officers Association, says: “The association recognises the dangerous and challenging jobs that fire and rescue services staff are exposed to on a daily basis. We know that occasionally the effects of these incidents can adversely impact on the psychological wellbeing of staff. Consequently services have occupational health teams and access to other support, such as ‘critical incident debriefing and defusing’, as well as the ability to organise one-to-one counselling. The health and wellbeing of all our staff is of paramount importance.”
But Wrack says: “What was a stable career has been turned upside-down and the resulting uncertainty cannot be good for anybody’s mental health. If things go on as they are, we are fearful that this dreadful trend towards increasing numbers taking their lives will continue. The lack of regard for the brave men and women who sacrifice their own safety and sometimes even their lives to ensure the public are kept out of danger is a disgrace.”
For Blue Light support, phone 0300 303 5999, text 84999 or visit [email protected]
• This article was amended on 25 November 2015. An earlier version stated that at least 13 firefighters had taken their own lives in the past three years, and incorrectly concluded that this “means that the proportion of suicides in its ranks is a third higher than the UK average of 19 per 100,000 for UK males.”
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