Paramedics are used to working in close-knit teams, after all, we share in the good, and the not so good, the difficult calls and ones that are really rewarding. We work together during holidays such as Christmas and at times of the year that are special to us. We’re there, day and night, working alongside each other, whether that be in an ambulance, an operations centre or control room, a hospital emergency department, or on the battlefield. But, when it comes to our mental wellbeing, something very hardy within our culture can stop us, and hold us back from sharing with others, exactly how we feel. That to do so, would be awkward, would show vulnerability, and perhaps wouldn’t really ‘fit’ with how we see ourselves as paramedics who can, and have to deal with whatever is placed in front of us.
Just as we might go from ‘job to job’ or ‘patient to patient’, our thoughts and emotions about the things that we see and experience, can bounce along in rhythm to this, and get lost along the way and maybe not even recognised by us at all. Yet, unknowingly to us, sometimes, they remain within, with more difficult experiences adding to the pot over time.
Whilst, of course, everyone’s experiences are deeply personal and may or may not resonate with things that have presented in our own lives, there is something to be said for having the support and understanding of those who know the job that we do. Sadly, with rising demand and expectations for healthcare, down-time between calls to recuperate with colleagues is more difficult to take, especially given the additional pressures experienced over the last couple of years. We know that research has also identified that ‘69% of emergency responders feel that their mental health has deteriorated due to the pandemic’ (Mind, 2021).
As such, the College recognised the importance of providing a safe, confidential space where paramedics could talk with peers. In particular, listening to the voices of members, our experience of working within paramedicine, and indicative research, highlighted to us that paramedics actively working on the frontline and those who were shielding or away from work for a long period of time due to long covid or other reason, were isolated by the pandemic situation and limited in being able to talk with colleagues and friends.
In the autumn of last year, as part of the College’s year-long ‘Paramedic Mental Health Project’ funded by the Covid Healthcare Support Appeal, two online reflective spaces groups were facilitated in collaboration with the charity ‘Doctors in Distress’ who provide psychological wellbeing supports for a variety of healthcare professionals. The bespoke programme – designed especially for the UK paramedic community – provided confidential group spaces for members, and were facilitated by experienced and trained psychotherapeutic practitioners.
Groups, such as these, are brilliant for sharing experiences, and offer the opportunity for confidential support from those who do the same work, and understand the job and what it’s really been like. They provide time out from the demands of life and work, and a safe space to decompress, chat, and learn about other people’s challenges and what has helped them to cope.
The programme started with an introductory webinar which took place on 6th September 2021. This featured an inspirational talk by NWAS Advanced Practitioner, Craig Hayden, and was followed by eight weekly online meet-ups in the safe space of the two small groups. Each week, participants were encouraged to join the sessions, which lasted for an hour-and-a-half - although there was no pressure to attend all sessions, or for the full amount of time. The challenge of working around shifts was considered, and to best meet the availability of attendees and the facilitators, a mutually agreed day and time was arranged.
It’s totally normal to feel a bit anxious or apprehensive about joining a group, and can take time to feel more relaxed about it. Getting to know the others and seeing familiar faces every week, as well as the facilitators approachable nature, was helpful to the paramedics who came along to the sessions and enabled them to feel at ease. It’s also normal to be worried about being expected or feeling pressurised into bearing your soul to people who are pretty much strangers. However, this is a misdemeanour and not anything that is expected. People are free to choose if they talk or not, and they can choose to listen if they prefer. Nattering about and sharing experiences informally in this way however, can be so beneficial to everyone in the group – a finding that was penned in the feedback that we received.
Concluding just prior to Christmas, the overwhelming value of the groups was highlighted by those that took part. They shared how they realised that they weren’t alone, and how the groups were a safe, trustworthy, and supportive place, where it was ok to share life and work experiences with the group, without judgement – as group rules were agreed so that no one was judged for what they said or what was shared – hence this being a safe space.
Listening to and hearing others who were further along in their journey was a really powerful experience, and offered opportunity to learn practical tips for things that had helped, made life a bit easier, and enabled them to move forwards.
By being open and having a chinwag with others in a similar boat, the facilitators noticed how those who attended started to become less stressed and feelings of being weighed down or anxious started to lift.
Whilst none of us has a magic wand to make things that are bothering us disappear completely, the groups achieved their aim in providing a safe, contained space where paramedics with similar experiences could find mutual support from each other, and through this, they felt better in themselves.
Whilst some might say ‘nah, that’s not for me’ – and we acknowledge that group support is not for everyone – what remains important is that we challenge beliefs that see reaching out to others (in whatever form this takes) as associated with a flaw of character, or that confiding in others is a waste of time and is pointless, and we should ‘deal’ with things alone and without help and support. That generally, will only get us so far, but is not usually helpful or sustainable in the long run.
The College continues to advocate for paramedic’s psychological wellbeing, with much work being undertaken around organisational and professional factors which have been associated with conditions of work. We know that there continues to be strides we need to make within this area – and we are working hard to do so with colleagues from collaborative organisations. However, whilst we do this, we are also mindful that providing opportunities for support, and opportunities to maintain and enhance personal psychological wellbeing are equally important. So, this year, as we continue our mental health project, we will be launching further initiatives including additional reflective groups and also exciting new opportunities for physical and psychological wellness. More details will be released on social media and on our website shortly!
College of Paramedics (2021) Reflective Spaces: Paramedic Support Groups, Available at: https://collegeofparamedics.co.uk/COP/News/Reflective%20Spaces%20-%20Paramedic%20Support%20Groups.aspx [accessed 26th January 2022].
Mind (2021) Our Research in the Emergency Services, Available at: https://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/campaigns/blue-light-programme/our-blue-light-research/#BlueLightCovid19ResponseReport2021 [accessed 26th January 2022].