International non-governmental organisation, IMRF has recently launched a forum to gather information on post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which it believes is too often unrecognised among maritime SAR professionals.

Enrico Menezies of National Sea Rescue Institute South Africa

Enrico Menezies of National Sea Rescue Institute South Africa

Volunteers and professionals come from all kinds of backgrounds, all walks of life and different circumstances. Their job means they put themselves in harm’s way repeatedly, risking their physical and mental health.

Research suggests PTSD amongst first responders is comparable to that of combat veterans, but they rarely seek help, often because they don’t want to appear weak, they are concerned what their colleagues will think, or because they think they can handle it.

Enrico Menezies, a full-time practical training instructor with National Sea Rescue Institute South Africa has spoken about his experiences.

Five years ago, in 2015, he found he was struggling to cope: “The tell-tale signs were all there - detachment from others, anger outbursts, short tempered, taking it out on loved ones, mistrust of crew close to me, nightmares, not washing myself, loss of interest and kicking the dog when all he wanted was some attention. But I didn’t see the signs and refused to listen when family and friends told me that I needed help.

“I thought I was rough, tough and of all people I didn’t need help, I thought I could deal with it in my own way… Then one day I woke up and realized something was wrong, everything including my family was gone and I was out in the street sleeping under a box. Fortunately, I was strong enough within, I swallowed my pride, dropped my ego and went for help.”

He goes on to explain that PTSD can result from living through dangerous or traumatic events, getting hurt, seeing someone else injured or dead, trauma associated with children, having little or no social support, substance abuse or mental illness.

Stress is the initial response to anything that has the potential to upset our wellbeing and balance, but PTSD is the long-term aftermath of that traumatic experience.

So how should maritime SAR handle this? The IMRF and Enrico Menezies agree that its vital to have appropriate systems in place to help and support an organisation’s staff. Regular training sessions and open discussions about PTSD, together with tips for dealing with it and how to spot the signs are also important and help to break down the stigma surrounding the condition.

Maritime SAR organisations should provide detailed briefings before a ‘shout’, and a proper debrief afterwards. Too often these are rushed because of the nature of the emergency but they are vital in helping SAR professionals safely and effectively ‘process’ what they have experienced.

Enrico concludes that: “PTSD is not a weakness; it is an illness or injury that needs to be dealt with very carefully. It never goes away but with help and support you can manage it effectively. SAR organisations must accept responsibility and be accountable for exposing their crews to traumatic events. We must educate ourselves, put safety precautions in place and where this fails - provide our crews and volunteers with effective trauma counselling.”

Theresa Crossley, CEO IMRF adds: “PTSD is a relatively well-known condition, but it’s rarely thought about in maritime SAR, which we are finding – from talking to our members – is a significant oversight. Our crews experience potentially face challenging conditions and traumatic events each time they go out, they deal with situations many of us can barely imagine. We need to look after their mental health as much as we try to protect their physical health. This Forum will bring our members together to discuss this important subject, share experiences and develop much needed best practice.”

The International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF) is the international non-governmental organisation (NGO) working to develop and improve maritime search and rescue (SAR) capacity and capability around the world.

To find out more about the IMRF PTSD Forum just e-mail

By Jake Frith