William speaks of struggles with sadness as Air Ambulance pilot

The Duke of Cambridge has recounted how he was consumed by sadness when he served as an Air Ambulance pilot.

William spoke about how he struggled to talk about his emotions in a job that saw him encounter tragedy on a regular basis.

He opened up about his experiences flying with the Air Ambulance as he met serving blue light responders on a visit to Belfast to mark Emergency Services Day in the UK.

“I couldn’t put my finger on it, but you just felt very sad,” he said, reflecting on his time as a helicopter pilot.

“And then you start to see the world very differently…you start just getting very sad that the world is so hurt.

“It’s only then you go ‘hang on, you’ve got to look at this’ because it’s only natural that you sponge it and bring it in.”

Duke of Cambridge visit to Belfast
Duke of Cambridge visit to Belfast

William’s visit to Belfast had a particular focus on the mental health challenges many emergency services personnel face as a consequence of their pressurised and stressful jobs.

Taking part in a training workshop aimed at encouraging first responders to be comfortable sharing their feelings, he said more work was needed to tackle the stigma around mental health.

He acknowledged significant strides had been made in recent years, revealing that not one celebrity was prepared to get involved in the early days of his campaigning, such were their concerns about speaking openly about their struggles.

“This was six or seven years ago and not one celebrity wanted to talk about it in public…and now look at it,” he said.

On Emergency Services Day, we were delighted to welcome the Duke of Cambridge to our @PoliceCollegeNI to give him an insight to the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s bespoke emergency services peer support programme. #999Daypic.twitter.com/JOB5x65c8n

— Simon Byrne (@ChiefConPSNI) September 9, 2020

William said he would internalise the horrors he would face doing his job.

“For me it was the sadness, I really felt the sadness, I’d absorb the jobs I’d gone to,” he said.

“Sadly with the Air Ambulance you get a lot of deaths and I didn’t realise (the impact) – I would go to the next one and the next one.”

The duke told the participants in the workshop that it was natural to be upset by what they witnessed on a daily basis.

“We’ve got to somehow change that culture where we feel it’s okay to say ‘listen, this was horrendous, I really didn’t enjoy seeing that, it was really brutal’.

“How do we talk about it?”

During the visit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s training college, he stressed the need for society to look after its 999 responders.

He chatted with and thanked police officers, firefighters and ambulance crew members for their work during the Covid-19 pandemic.

William also met five-month-old Irish setter Tara, who has been trained to provide comfort to those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“This is probably very bad for their training,” he joked as he played with and stroked the pup.

Duke of Cambridge visit to Belfast
Duke of Cambridge visit to Belfast

In another lighter moment, William laughed with a police officer as he told her of his relief that the schools were open again.

“I think every parent is breathing a sigh of relief that school has started again,” he said.

“Five months – it’s been wonderful, but it’s been a long five months.”

In a speech at the close of his visit, the duke said it had been an “extraordinary year” for the emergency services.

“The months ahead will no doubt be uncertain and at points scary,” he added.

“But, thanks to the dedication and sacrifice of those of you working across the emergency services and in the NHS, I count myself and others in this country very fortunate.

“Your dedication is not only apparent when we are faced with a global pandemic.

“Each and every day, people from teams across the blue light community are called to the scenes of dreadful incidents.”

William highlighted the response of the emergency services to the recent stabbing attacks in Birmingham.

“But as you care for us in our time of need, so too must we ensure that we are there for you when you need it the most,” he added.

“We must ensure that you have the right support in place each and every day.

“I know first-hand, that even in routine circumstances, those of you on the front line can face immense challenges that can naturally have a significant impact on both your physical and mental health.

“Firstly, it’s important that we recognise that. And secondly, it’s important that we do all we can to support you through it.”

Duke of Cambridge visit to Belfast
Duke of Cambridge visit to Belfast

The duke recalled meeting PSNI officers during a visit with his wife Kate to Hillsborough Castle earlier this year. He referred to the unique challenges they face in policing the region.

“We were struck then, as I am now, by your steadfast commitment to helping others,” he said.

“You are a testament to the blue light community across our country, and I can’t thank you enough for what you do.

“At one point or another, each and every one of us will meet you or one of your colleagues, speak to you, be comforted by you and benefit from the care and protection you provide.

“Given what we ask of you, we must do all we can to look out for you, and to help you to look out for each other.”

Sergeant Belinda Mason and PSNI staff member Julie Howell, who are both involved in the police’s wellbeing training, were impressed by William’s openness during his visit.

“The duke reflected on the impact of a life in both the public eye and a life of public service and that’s something that I think the people here today can relate to at times,” said sergeant Mason afterwards

“He talked about sadness and certainly we empathise with that with some of the incidents we go to as part of our role.”

Ms Howell added: “He was keen to learn about what organisational support there was, so he talked about senior leaders in the organisation and the importance of them buying into this and maybe even sharing some of their personal stories and challenges with their mental health.

“There is still a stigma, there’s absolutely still a stigma with policing and other emergency services and that’s still a barrier today to people asking for help.”

The duke’s trip to the region came a day after he convened the first meeting of a new body established to improve mental health support for members of emergency services across the UK.

The Emergency Responder Senior Leader Board, which brings together leaders from across all 999 organisations, will promote collaborative working to ensure all emergency responders receive the mental health support they need.

The board was established by the duke in response to a recommendation arising from a research project commissioned by The Royal Foundation in 2018 into the mental health and wellbeing of emergency responders in the UK.