Managing Traumatic Stress

on . Posted in LIFELINE February 2017 - English

The IMRF’s David Jardine-Smith writes:

Although I have been personally involved in pulling people from the sea on a couple of occasions, my own background in SAR is mostly in rescue coordination, training and management. One or more steps back from the front line. Away from the stress. Right...?

Search and rescue people know about ‘stress’, don’t we? We’re in lifesaving – and of course it’s stressful. When you save a life, that’s a cause for celebration. When you lose one – well: you tried, right...?

I remember a former colleague of mine – a man I had great respect for generally – scoffing at the idea that rescue coordination centre people might suffer from ‘stress’. He referred to the opening scenes of the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’, then in the cinemas. “That’s stress,” he said. Trying to get ashore in a storm of gunfire: that’s stressful. I suppose he might have allowed that a SAR crew directly involved in a difficult and unsuccessful rescue might suffer too. But the backroom boys & girls? No.

He could not have been more wrong – and his attitude, especially as a manager, appals. Yet that attitude is still all too prevalent in the maritime world, including the SAR services. Managers still say, or imply, that stress is just a part of the job – and one that the individual employee or volunteer should be able to cope with. This problem is exacerbated when the individual silently agrees: I should be able to deal with this. If I can’t, there’s something wrong with me.

This is all a part of wider society’s difficulty with mental health problems generally. If a crew member breaks a leg, everyone ‘gets it’ – the casualty, her or his managers, health workers, family, friends. If anything, he or she will be treated as even more of a hero.

But if the injury is a mental one, are the attitudes the same? No. But they should be.

The Nautical Institute and Human Rights at Sea, the charity aiming to raise awareness, implementation and accountability of human rights provisions throughout the maritime environment, has recently published a very useful booklet, Managing Traumatic Stress – guidance for maritime organisations.

The booklet is available for free download from https://www.humanrightsatsea.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Managing-Traumatic-Stress-dps.pdf, or via https://www.humanrightsatsea.org/publications/.

The IMRF recommends that you have a look at it – especially if you are involved in SAR in a personnel management capacity, but also if you are involved as an individual.

The guidance has been developed with the protection of seafarers’ mental health in mind, particularly that of the crews of ships involved in SAR in the Mediterranean during the migrant crisis. But it is of use to any response organisation. It does not give all the answers, but it does provide very necessary focus, explaining about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and providing guidance on how it can be addressed.

Its author, Professor Neil Greenberg of King’s College, London, notes that “personnel working in high-risk or trauma exposed organisations experience much higher rates [than the general population]. There is, however, very good evidence that the risk of developing PTSD or other mental health conditions can be substantially diminished if organisations put in place evidence-based measures that can prevent and detect issues at an early stage.

“Better mental health support not only provides moral benefits, there are also legal and financial benefits to organisations who focus on supporting their most important asset – their people.”

Bridget Hogan of the Nautical Institute hopes “that this guide will lead to more open discussion about mental health at sea, ending some of the stigma that attaches to the subject. It provides practical guidance for managers, operators, human resources departments and all involved with the welfare of seafarers around the world.”

The IMRF echoes Ms Hogan’s hope. This is something that needs much more open discussion by rescuers and their managers too.

And yes: this includes the ‘backroom’ people. Managing Traumatic Stress makes the important points, among many others, that people who become involved in traumatic situations – SAR, in our case – may already be vulnerable to stress disorders; and that people far from the ‘front line’ may be adversely affected.

From my own experience, as an example, on the day I returned to work in a rescue coordination centre from a close family bereavement, a helicopter crashed into the sea in our area with terrible loss of life. I did my job, but I was in a mess afterwards.

It never occurred to me to seek help with that.

Why would it, when others had suffered so much and SAR responders on scene were pulling broken bodies from the water? I would have felt guilty...

And this seems to me as good a reason as any to recommend downloading, reading, and acting upon this very helpful publication.

To share your own story, email news@imrf.org.uk

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