This post is retrospectively dedicated to the memory of PC David Rathband who struggled so bravely to cope after life-altering physical but also mental injuries. He died of those injuries in February 2012 having been shot whilst serving the area in which I was born and bred.
<<< Warning: this blog contains some very blunt descriptions of horrendous incidents I have dealt with in my career. >>>
Employment as a police officer can lead to triggers for serious, enduring mental illness. I have seen this, I have managed police officers who have experienced some horrendous things. I have known police officers who are now diligently serving their communities and who have had periods of time in hospital, including detained under the Mental Health Act, as a result of their work. I think this problem is far, far greater than we realise and not only within the police, but also across all of our Armed and Emergency services.
Most police forces’ Occupational Health departments have access to psychiatric professionals, also to counselling services. Mine employs a psychiatric nurse for a certain number of sessions per week and he is a busy man. But the most impactive way I can think to illustrate some of the cultural issues of mental wellbeing within police is to ask you to listen to the officer who set up the first mental health support group within UK policing: Sergeant Susanne Barnett from Devon and Cornwall Police. It’s an inspring talk, well worth listening to.
I reflect back upon the first part of my own career and am now grateful that I have not suffered serious mental health consequences of some of my own experiences and of course, our Protectors work whilst living lives as full of normal stresses and strains as any others: divorce, alcoholism, financial problems and living a life full of shifts, stress and anti-social hours. This stuff is a problem.
This is list very quickly put together, because there were so many things to choose from … there is NOTHING unique about this list. All officers have got one of these.
- The five-year old boy who was fatally struck down, having his head crushed by a bus in a freak accident in front of his mother on a busy arterial road in rush hour: I was the duty sergeant who turned up to coordinate.
- I was the first officer on the scene of an especially horrific murder and watching a man die in front of my eyes, one of my officers doing frantic first aid, covered in blood whilst we waited for the ambulance. We tried to do something, anything for his girlfriend who’d witnessed it all. I can remember her screams now.
- Going through the door of two different flats (two different incidents) to deal with armed, barricaded men who had equipped themselves with knives and threatened to kill whoever came in.
- I recall putting training into practice and one of them tried their best to kill me and my colleagues with his knives. We were grateful the training and kit worked – I was especially intrigued in the other one to find the man sticking a 10 inch carving knife into his neighbour’s chest in a room that looked like an abattoir.
- We hadn’t known his neighbour was in there and he was bloody lucky not to die.
- I remember driving down a road on a routine patrol, chatting about rubbish with my mate and suddenly seeing two men running from a house: one persuing the other, the second carrying a gun. I remember watching the gun getting levelled at us and thinking, “Is he going to shoot us?!!”
- I remember going to work at 7pm on 09th August 2011 and thinking, “where the hell do you even start?!!” and spending twelve hours making decisions about which member of the public’s 999 call would go unanswered, deployment of officers into the riots and ongoing worry for their safety and welfare.
- I remember developing standard gag lines to deploy to friends and family and colleagues that are all about me insulating myself from this ‘stuff’ to avoid taking it all in. “It could be worse, it could be my [son / wife / family]” etc., etc..
- Not intended to be hurtful, or insensitive and not spoken at work: defence mechanisms, everytime.
- Because if I thought too much about it … I can feel my heart rate raising as I type that up.
I’ve been lucky enough to find ways of coping with this. There is no strategy to follow, you either find it a way of coping or you don’t and it’s all luck. It’s not to do with ‘being strong’ and other macho stereotypes: I’ve seen some ‘big strong people’ brought to their knees through this stuff we deal with purely because they were not so lucky – that’s all.
My colleagues and I work in an organisation that is not as conducive as it needs to be to managing the mental health and wellbeing of staff, but let me be clear: this is not necessarily because of any lack of effort on the part of the police or senior officers, although it would be folly to pretend that there are no individual examples of indifference or ignorance. I would also sound a gentle alarm across the whole public sector as I’ve experienced it that I see too much pressure put on frontline staff to ‘deliver’ stuff, whilst being constrained through poor-systems of work within the gift of managers to change and because of targets which actually pervert their staff’s ability to get it done right. Some managers unwittingly erect barriers to success and then think they have to ‘sweat the assets’ – ie, the people – to get stuff done and that is never right.
I have seen the service invest real time, effort and money in services, support networks, structures, and so on. We’re employing psychiatric professionals and counsellors; we’re training staff as ‘diffusers’ to look at staff welfare after critical incidents; to act as ‘First Contact Advisors’ (a term used in my force) to provide a confidential sounding board and to act as a signpost to support services and advice. All of this relies upon the creation of a culture in which, proactively ensuring positive mental wellbeing and an atmosphere in which it is protected and fostered.
Like many other ‘tough’ services – Armed Forces, Ambulance, Fire – we’re just not as good as we need to be as human beings at seeking help when its first required and not feeling afraid to say we’ve found something hard to deal with. Officers in my experience incline to their own social and informal support structures and this is to be normal and human.
However, studies have suggested that psychiatric morbidity in professions like emergency services and Armed forces is far higher than in the general population. PTSD is under-identified and more prevalent; suicide rates are higher than the normal population and when you note that amongst people who have secure employment, income and other things which one might associate with insulating against suicidal ideation and sudden deterioration in mental health. There were almost 70 suicides by Royal Ulster Constabulary GC officers and more since the inception of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Mental wellbeing within our Emergency and Armed services is important. Who is protecting our protectors?
See a similar blog post by Ella Shaw – author of Diagnosis:LOB – about mental wellbeing in the Ambulance Service.