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Rescue work can take a toll on volunteers. How does the NSRI support their mental health?

While the majority of NSRI volunteers report that their training and participation in the organisation boosts their confidence and discipline, rescue work can take a toll on their mental health, particularly in instances where tragedy strikes. In fact, first responders such as NSRI volunteers can be at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at the same levels as combat veterans.

“Mental stress for our volunteers has roughly two evolutions,” says NSRI Rescue Services Director Brett Ayres. “Critical incident stress, which is stress from a single, potentially traumatic incident; and stress that builds up over time. In this instance, a volunteer encounters various critical incidents, and may not feel the impact of a single incident on its own. However, over time these can cause a kind of complex PTSD.”

Cognisant of this, the NSRI has put measures in place to protect the mental health of its volunteers.

The seed was sown as far back as 2011, when an airplane crashed near Plettenberg Bay; there were no survivors. Local NSRI stations formed part of the recovery effort, as the wreckage was found off-shore of the Robberg Nature Reserve; all nine bodies were recovered.

“Our volunteers sometimes see things that no person should have to see,” says NSRI national training manager Graeme Harding. “It became apparent that the volunteers involved in the Plettenberg Bay plane crash recovery effort were displaying signs of PTSD, and it was decided that guidance around symptoms, triggers and solutions to stress and PTSD should be included in volunteer training going forward.”

Today, the NSRI is a world leader in mental health support for rescue workers; in fact, the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF), of which the NSRI is a member, has used the NSRI framework to launch its own initiative – titled #SARyouOK? – to promote awareness and further break down the stigma attached to mental health.

This framework includes a critical incident stress debriefing: debriefings occur after all callouts, however, in the case of a critical incident in which a life or lives have been lost, for example, a request might be made to call-in external trauma counsellors.

KZN rescue

“I give a talk called ‘How to deal with stress’ as part of the training for all volunteers,” says Graeme. “I talk about the Plettenberg Bay incident, and about my own experiences. I show emotion, and I encourage station commanders, as leaders, to also talk about their own stress and trauma on the job, to show vulnerability. Because, in this work, you need to be tough and disciplined, but that can also mean people are hesitant to speak up about mental health struggles for fear of being seen as ‘weak’. We seek to normalise vulnerability around mental health issues, so that volunteers can speak up and seek help when they need it.”

External trauma counsellors are made available through Life Healthcare’s Employee Wellness Programme (EWP). Life Healthcare is one of the NSRI’s gold sponsors, and has made their EWP available to the NSRI free of charge, which provides counselling services and mental health support to equip volunteers to carry out their demanding duties.

The service isn’t only available on condition of critical incident trauma – the EWP is available to all volunteers, at any time, for any reason, including times of personal difficulty unrelated to rescue work – and it isn’t only available to volunteers, but also to spouses and immediate family.

“There is a customer care line and a Whatsapp group, which can put you in touch not only with counselling services, but also with financial and legal expertise, as well as information on general health and wellbeing,” says Drowning Prevention Executive Director Dr Jill Fortuin, who spearheaded this collaboration within the organisation. “We encourage all our volunteers to make use of this service. And it has made a real difference.”

The importance of these interventions was reinforced recently in the aftermath of the devastating KwaZulu-Natal floods. “This event was of significant impact for many of the volunteers involved, not just from the aspect of witnessing the devastation but most especially the feeling of helplessness in being unable to actually do anything for the people who were calling in,” says Clifford Ireland, NSRI KwaZulu-Natal Regional Representative. “The lack of closure in many instances has left even the more experienced crew feeling bereft and in need of someone to talk to. Group and individual counselling sessions have been very helpful for the volunteers to process the event in their minds which will hopefully ensure that they are not troubled in future years.”

Over and above the guidance and support offered by the volunteer support centre, station commanders, and Life Healthcare’s EWP, the NSRI also hosts weekly digital talks by various speakers for volunteers on a range of subjects, such as diversity in the workplace, and how to strike a balance between work, home and volunteer duties.

“Our dedicated volunteers deserve all the support they can get for their selfless commitment to saving lives. We’re doing all we can to protect their mental wellbeing and help them continue to thrive,” says Dr Jill.


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