Giving emergency service responders better access to mental health support following major incidents

Case study

Programmes to identify emergency service responders in need of mental health support are limited. However, more staff in UK police forces are now set to get the help they need, following swift action on new research.

Dr Ian Hesketh Dr Ian Hesketh, Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) of the National Police Wellbeing Service at the College of Policing
Dr Noreen Tehrani Dr Noreen Tehrani, Founder of Noreen Tehrani Associates, UK
Literati award won Outstanding Paper 2020
Winning research The Role of Psychological Screening for Emergency Service Responders


The problem

Exposure to traumatic stress and critical incidents can cause negative mental health outcomes, particularly for those in occupations where distressing events and life or death situations occur daily. Emergency service responders are one group at increased risk of experiencing mental health issues like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), burnout, stress-related anxiety, and suicide. Effective mental health provision is essential in this line of work, but prior to 2018 psychological screening for emergency service responders was only available in a handful of police forces around the UK.

How can organisations proactively identify emergency service workers who need psychological support? And how can psychological screening be better delivered to responders? Dr Ian Hesketh, Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) of the National Police Wellbeing Service at the College of Policing, and Dr Noreen Tehrani, Founder of Noreen Tehrani Associates, have investigated these issues and conclude the need for a psychological screening approach that is accessible, reliable, and economically viable.

We are able to provide organisationally informed research which will make a tangible difference

Dr Ian Hesketh


The research

The team received funding from the UK Home Office’s Police Transformation fund to conduct research through the National Police Wellbeing Service (NPWS). The result of that research is presented in their award-winning paper, ‘The role of psychological screening for emergency service responders’, published in 2018. The paper gathered evidence and produced a strong case for introducing psychological surveillance for police officers and staff working in specialist roles in the UK police force, as well as for responders who have been involved in situations where a major incident had occurred.

The paper proposed that psychological screening programmes should measure clinical symptoms and identify personal and organisational hazards on a large scale. In addition, programmes should be economically friendly, reliable, and ethical. They should also provide appropriate communications to the 43 police forces in England and Wales.

The National Police Wellbeing Service developed a comprehensive package of communications and conferences that were designed to prepare the forces and their occupational health colleagues to administer a psychological screening programme, provide essential clinical interviews, and support to staff. In addition, the service was to deliver a programme of 12 courses to support occupational health professionals in understanding the screening results.


The impact towards responsible management

Following the initial publication of the paper, the National Police Wellbeing Service has recognised the benefits of psychological screening and made the decision to extend the screening to more roles. This now includes police personnel who are dealing with online child abuse, family liaison officers, firearms officers, counter terrorism officers and serious collision investigators.

Since the implementation of this scalable psychological screening, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of ad-hoc psychological screening for police personnel who have shown signs of mental health problems nationwide. In 2020 and 2021, the National Police Wellbeing Service had increased the number of officers taking part in the screening programme by more than 5,000, with all forces in England and Wales screening at least one of their high-risk roles. There has now been a fivefold increase in screening, as well as the universal engagement of all forces. In addition, training of occupational health professionals in structured interviewing has taken place and management information is now provided to police forces.

The National Police Wellbeing Service has also been able to showcase this award-winning paper as testimony of the success of an evidence-based approach to practical policing. The research team note that putting the theory into practice, scaling it up and seeing it succeed throughout multiple police forces is the most rewarding part of their work. Dr Hesketh says: 'We believe that by understanding the mission and purpose of our work in protecting the health and wellbeing of police officers and staff we are able to provide evidence-based research which will make a tangible difference'.