Andrew: “My heart and soul were in firefighting… it was difficult adjusting to retirement”

Andrew Robinson has been supported by the Charity with his mental health recently – and he says online Living Well Groups have helped him reconnect with the community he missed so much.

Reaching the end of your career, particularly when you’ve been doing a job you love and are passionate about for several decades, is incredibly difficult. But Andrew Robinson says he didn’t realise just how long it would take for him to adjust until it finally happened.

Andrew went on to struggle with his mental health, as life away from the fire service – plus a new role he’d taken on which had its own challenges – all proved very difficult to cope with.

However, he says he was finally persuaded to reach out for support from the Charity after reading another beneficiary’s story. He has since received mental health support, both remotely and face-to-face, and has also reconnected with the service he loves via our online Living Well Groups.

“We had a scheme in Northern Ireland called Junior Firefighters, so I started on that at 16, then took time out to study in Manchester. It meant I’ve effectively been in the service from being a teenager,” says Andrew, who began serving as a firefighter in Northern Ireland before joining Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service in 1978.

Andrew retired from the service in 2010, before working in Iran and Oman for a year training junior officers and middle management in practical aspects of areas like RTCs and breathing apparatus, chemical incidents and incident command.

When he returned to the UK, he tried to embrace retirement away from the service altogether, but found it difficult from the word go.

“It’s taken me years to adjust… my life, my heart and my soul were in firefighting like so many others. I have found it very, very difficult to adjust,” says Andrew.

“In 2015 I began volunteering as a fire service chaplain for Greater Manchester. That really helped me because I could go into stations again, talk with crews, I’d take part in training exercises with them and also go out to some incidents.”

Having found the volunteering role helpful and a way of keeping busy, Andrew then began a role as a Hospital Chaplain in 2019. However, he says this one proved particularly detrimental to his mental health.

“I was finding it really difficult to adjust to not being a firefighter, even after all this time, but also I became the victim of bullying within the hospital role. At 65 you don’t expect it, but I was bullied and intimidated by two other staff. I won’t go into details of that, but it brought back a lot of the struggles I’d previously had with my mental health.”

Sadly, however, he then went on to suffer another setback – this time with his physical health.

“On Christmas Day in 2020, I had a heart attack,” he says. “The crazy thing is, typical stupid man here, I worked all day! When I came home and told my wife how I’d felt all day, she threw me straight in the car and took me to hospital.

“With all of the mental health struggles I’d had, and then with the heart attack and a few other things going on at the start of 2021, I didn’t know what to do with myself.

“I still find this difficult to admit and to share, but I was in an absolute mess…

“This isn’t like me at all, but I didn’t want to get up in the mornings, so I didn’t. I’m embarrassed to say this, but personal hygiene went out the window, I wouldn’t shave or shower for days on end and then I’d have to force myself. My wife was really worried.

“Because of the era that I came through the fire service, I’m the sort of person that wears a shirt and tie everywhere, all the time. I just couldn’t be bothered.”

Realising that he’d begun to really struggle, Andrew – who had spent years supporting those around him with similar issues – knew he needed to find help before he got any worse.

“What triggered me to contact the Charity was reading a piece on your website, with Tony Proctor. He was a Deputy CFO in Greater Manchester. I knew him, he was a lovely, lovely guy and we got on very well,” says Andrew.

“When I read that having retired he experienced anxiety and stress, finding it difficult to adjust, I thought to myself, ‘wow, a DCFO experienced this too’. I thought, if Tony had the humility to approach the Charity for help – because at the end of the day, it’s not easy to say to someone, ‘I need help’ – why don’t I? That’s what triggered me to do just that.”

Andrew spoke to the Charity and it was recommended he have some virtual counselling sessions.

“I had the counselling over video calls with a psychological therapist who was based at Jubilee House,” he recalls. “She then recommended I go to Harcombe House in Devon when we finished those sessions.

“I think it’s really only been since being at Harcombe that I’ve begun to feel better and adjust. It was just amazing, the staff were just absolutely brilliant. The level of care and understanding, and compassion… I’d never experienced that before.

“When I think about the love and compassion the Charity’s shown, I just fill up”

Andrew Robinson

“There was just a small group of us and the beauty of the group was, we were all open and we all made ourselves vulnerable in front of each other.”

More recently, Andrew has begun attending our online Living Well Groups, which he says have helped him reconnect with other retired fire service colleagues.

“Being part of that and being with people who talk the same language as you is so helpful. As is with the fire service worldwide, we accept one another and it really is a family,” says Andrew.

“They’re absolutely brilliant and I’d say there’s a real bond between all of us now. We do open up and share, with some of us often making ourselves vulnerable, and it’s been super.”

Andrew says, looking back now, he wishes he’d reached out earlier. He now hopes his own story will help someone else, the way that he was helped.

“One of the things my wife and I have been involved in is, through a Christian community, helping and supporting exiles with housing and counselling and things,” he says. “We actually helped 6,000 people and the government estimated that, before they started keeping records, we probably helped around 9,000.

“But whenever it came to myself and my own needs, I found it very difficult to take that step. I was thinking, throughout my life I’ve helped people, but I can’t help myself.

“I tell everybody about the work the Charity does now! The one and only organisation which has truly shown me support is The Fire Fighters Charity.

“When I think about what the Charity’s done for me, and the love and compassion it’s shown, I just fill up. You guys are doing such a wonderful job, it makes me cry thinking about it. I’ve never come across anything like it.”

If you’re struggling with your physical or mental health, or you need support with your social wellbeing, we may be able to help you. Call our Support Line on 0800 389 8820, make an enquiry online or register for MyFFC and visit the ‘Access Support’ tab.

You can also join our ‘Share Your Story Group in MyFFC to chat to others who have received the Charity’s support, or enquire about sharing your own story.