01/07/2021

You’re not alone, even if you feel that you are

Sally Benatar
Sally Benatar

Former Borough Commander for South West London, now retired

This year we’re working with Mind’s Blue Light programme to support the mental health of the UK’s emergency services, and to share stories of their experiences during the pandemic.

Over the past five years I have experienced a few challenges in my personal life – a difficult marriage separation following domestic abuse in 2016, breast cancer the following year, and then an unexpected diagnosis of auto-immune hepatitis, a permanent liver condition, at the end of 2019.  I’m healthy now – fully recovered from the cancer and my auto-immune condition is now well managed through medication and rest, but I am still recovering from the impact of emerging from a long, controlling relationship​Domestic abuse: a toolkit for employers PDF An estimated 1.9 million adults aged 16–59 experienced domestic abuse in the last year. This toolkit outlines the duty of care employers have to employees and what their role is in preventing and tackling domestic abuse.Free By: Business in the Community View resource, which certainly impacted my mental health.

I loved my job and was energised by it, but due to its scope and level of responsibility it was all-consuming and hard to switch off from it. I wasn’t very good at sticking to work-life balance boundaries and it made me mentally and physically tired​Sleep and mental health PDF This one-page PDF fact sheet from Unilever highlights some of the reasons why poor mental health and sleep deprivation are linked, and offers techniques for improving the amount and quality of your sleep.Free By: Unilever View resource a lot of the time, although I had great support from my team.

We were encouraged to put together our own virtual toolkit of practical things

I benefitted from counselling at work back in 2016 when I was right in the middle of separating, which was very useful and helped me to make sense of my thoughts and priorities. Attending the Wellbeing Resilience Programme at the Police Rehabilitation Centre in 2018 was one of the best things I have done – we were encouraged to put together our own virtual toolkit of practical things and coping strategies to maintain our resilience​Personal resilience: an anchor in the unknown Web page Personal resilience is the way we cope with challenging and difficult situations in order to overcome them. This guide offers advice on improving your resilience and managing uncertainty. Free By: NHS England and NHS Improvement View resource and positivity. I have frequently drawn on this and will continue to do so.

I think it’s very important for bosses, and in fact all colleagues, to create a culture where there is good support for people experiencing mental health difficulties and that there is no stigma around asking for help. I’m pleased that on the South West London Command, we had a number of Blue Light Champions ready to help others, we put a Welfare Support team in place and our Senior Leadership team all undertook Blue Light Champion awareness training, to gain a greater recognition of the issues that many police officers and police staff experience.

Credit West Midlands Police

I’ve always been open with my colleagues and friends about what I’m facing and I draw strength from the support of others. Having said that, I am really terrible at asking for help​Take 10 Together: Starting the conversation PDF Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England is calling on everyone to ‘Take 10 Together’ and take ten minutes to start a conversation about mental health. Free By: Mental Health First Aid England View resource, and I have regularly experienced times when I could feel myself slipping into a low mood and feeling lonely and isolated. I never felt isolated at work because I had such a great support network but, for various reasons, I had neglected to build up my support network at home.

Now I am retired, I am enjoying reconnecting with friends and putting that network in place now that I have time and space to do so, and I’m also getting much better at recognising when a low mood is starting and taking action as soon as I feel it coming on.

Police colleagues have been brilliant at checking in with me and listening

I have also benefited from the support of my two sisters and a couple of police colleagues who have been brilliant at checking in with me and listening, often just at the times when I have been experiencing a wobble.

To keep me busy, I have taken on a handful of voluntary roles and one paid role, all for no more than one or two days each per month. This keeps me connected to the world of work, which was important for me, but also gives me lots of time to rest and relax.

And best of all, I started online French horn lessons with the Kingston Music Service. I saw a tweet advertising lessons for adult beginners. Responding to the tweet was one of the best things I did last year!

Sally Benatar with horn

Music is a big part of my well-being toolkit. I listen to music a lot – Spotify or the radio – and I know what to put on if I feel a low mood coming, depending on what has triggered it.  And playing a musical instrument gives me a boost every time I do it.  I love playing the horn. It’s difficult but wonderful to play. I have joined the Blue Light Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra based in London for emergency service workers which was set up to raise awareness of mental health issues.

My advice is, seek help from people you can trust if you are struggling, there are many people who understand and will listen. Seek professional help if you need it and make the most of your Blue Light Champion colleagues who are all there to help you. You’re not alone – even if you feel that you are – and there is a lot of help available. My advice to emergency service bosses – reflect on what your own attitudes to mental health and well-being are – are you as supportive as you need to be?

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.

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