Who Is Protecting The Protectors?

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:LOBabout mental wellbeing in the Ambulance Service.

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16 thoughts on “Who Is Protecting The Protectors?

  1. Thank you for helping to raise awareness around mental health in the emergency services. The more people who challenge the stigma will mean more officers who will be open about their illness and get help before it is too late. We can all make a difference if we are brave enough to speak up.

    1. Thanks Susanne, I thought your talk was inspirational. Quite spot on. Hope you approve of the blog?! Anything you think could be on it? I intend to do a few more posts on MH within the Emergency / Armed services in due course.

      1. I very much approve of your blog, just look at the number of people who have responded with their own stories. The more people who are willing to share their experiences the more people will realise they are not alone. I have recieved a lot of emails as a result of your blog and it looks like another force is hoping to start a support group! Thank you for raising the profile.

    2. The protectors do need protecting.
      Quis custodiet custodies?
      Who is protecting the thin blue line for all our protection?

  2. true words and unfortunately equally as true within Mental Health services as well who cares for the carers in the main we relie on informal peer to peer support and staff going off with bad backs when all know its the stress of the job or in general or a specific incident seen too many colleagues attacked and expected to carry on as usual because its seen as part of the job and because we know the coping skills we teach to patients.

  3. I am really grateful to you for your courage in raising these issues and I agree with the last post in that it it is not only emergency services that suffer from this cultural view. Emergency, acute and armed services all have a long way to go in addressing the problem. And until they do personnel, their families and friends, and the people they serve all suffer. As a clinical psychologist I would argue that there ARE things that we can do that can reduce the vulneralbility to experiencing PTSD, both individually and as services. It would need to be systemic as well as individual, but not impossible. Willing to help.

      1. As you have already raised, having a culture in which people can talk openly and in a timely fashion. Access to group or 1:1 sessions with a knowledgeable facilitator. There are more options that could be considered, not sure where you are based, but would be happy to arrange to meet to discuss options.

      2. For the record, it may not have been clear from previous response, any help would be free of charge. Not looking to solicit work or fees. Just thinking about what options might work most effectively for your work group might need some discussion.

  4. Wow, as someone who once thought she was losing her marbles because she couldn’t deal with any more 18hr days dealing with both victims and perpetrators of violence (physical and sexual) and got NO SUPPORT from her senior officers, thank you for raising this. I had a break, moving to deal with murder (the relatives left behind and perpatrators) and now I now deal with child victims (and perpetrators) and I thank my lucky stars for my wonderful husband and family who keep me sane .

  5. I am always thanking you for bringing so much honesty to the debate and once again thank you. Your blog moved me to tears tonight as I struggle with what you have had to endure and my mind turns to my son who cleaned his brothers flat after his brother lay bleeding for hours after a violent self harming! What is the difference between one character and another? Thank God the black dog didn’t bite but what horrendous memories to have and I thank you for coping with them! Love of our special people is clearly very important and long may it last! This post is huge in terms of what you and your officers have had to deal with. I thank you all, am glad you have some support and wish you well.
    Services, proving yet again how important it is to Walk the Talk .

  6. This is SO pertinent, and frighteningly prescient. I am retired now – though I SHOULD have been retiring in a few days’ time. Yes, I’ve been on that journey into darkness. Am still on it, and probably always will be, in various forms, thankfully swimming now rather than sinking. But what is really scary is that I was about the last person to be expected to tumble. And, as I began to fall, nobody helped. It wasn’t their fault really; they either didn’t know what they were seeing, or what to do about it, or whether to try to do anything. Some were doubtless scared, as it triggered their own fears. And some – managers – either had little care (the higher-ups) or had been stuffed by those higher-ups into the position of being responsible WITH NO TRAINING WHATSOEVER. I was lucky. I’d been a good worker, was generally liked and was well thought of; my line managers were friends. I had also had a lesser stumble a few years earlier, and knew what was happening. That meant that I was able to begin to self-diagnose.
    In hindsight, I look back at many former colleagues, and know that they too were falling. Some exhibited stress behaviours, and ended up on discipline. Some got drunk. A lot. Some hid, plunging into overwork, or pretend to work, or radio silence – and in one case – literally hid in a cardboard box behind shops in the town centre. And some of course did the deed. If I, just with my small circle of ‘people I’ve known’ can bring to mind half a dozen suicides – and after I got ill had other colleagues confide their own near-misses – I have to wonder at the true scale of the issue.
    My Force paid lip-service to helping me. Oh, there WERE good people; one EXCELLENT FMO (but also several awful ones who exacerbated my problems); a handful of wonderful line managers who so wanted to help, but simply couldn’t. Or didn’t know how. Or didn’t have the time – and capacity both in a professional AND a personal sense. ‘Counselling’ provisions that I found appalling. HR managers …..well, let’s just say they didn’t help. Federation – very good – largely down to the individuals that I was lucky enough to find. Flint House? Less said the better. Didn’t work for me, was potentially a dangerous environment (I felt). Impression I got, reinforced since, was that it is a great facility for physical breakages, but not for more serious mental ones.
    My GP? I went through the whole practice before ending up with the boss; he was the only one who really got a handle on it. I can’t praise him enough. He looked after Doctors with similar illnesses. But guess what? The Black Dog took him for a walk in the end.
    All the time though, it was ME who was being asked to think and make decisions. Hang on – I’m ill! The whole point here is that I’ve temporarily lost the ability to think properly! I am already a fairly cynical long-service Cop, and now I’m massively paranoid! You want to force me into corners and compel me to make big decisions?
    My wife. My wonderful wife. I honestly believe that without her strength and perseverance, I’d be dead. How on earth does a partner manage to hang on in the midst of hell?
    Sorry, I’m probably rambling. Have to say my eyes are full of tears as I type.
    If anyone is reading this because they’ve got a Black Dog walking behind them – be as brave as you can. Start to tell someone. Do it BEFORE some manager decides to gain a promotion point by squeezing you then discipling you. Look up ‘Black Dog’ on Amazon and buy the two books that you’ll see there…..
    If you are a manager reading this….can’t help thinking there’s a Catch-22 thing here; if you are a character who is interested, you won’t need telling. And if not? Well, you won’t be reading this.
    If you are a Journo – tell the world how crummy the care provision can be, how big the problem is, the things that help (eg ‘Human Givens’/CBT), the elephant that’s growing steadily in the midst of the room.
    If you’ve had this illness, you might have to think of it, as I do, as being like alcoholism – you’ll get on top of it to varying extents, but you’ll always have it. The more you understand it, the less difficult it becomes. It’s a long, slow, roller-coaster process. You DO NOT get over it in weeks or even months. Look at all the similies I’ve used to describe being ILL. Yes, that’s all it is, an ILLNESS.
    Why is it that we happily accept a broken bone, we almost enjoy complaining of the ‘flu, we valiantly struggle against cancer – but mental illnesses…? Why do we have such a problem with accepting them?!
    Oh dear. I think I might just have written a blog! Time for a walk. (I live on Dartmoor, because I love to walk. I didn’t walk for almost two years while ill. The joy of it simply no longer existed. I am glad it returned.)

  7. I have heard these stories as a son together with the autopsy photographs of shootings, death in fire ( wrapped in barbed wire and head twice normal size), shooting then thrown in sea, eye jelly coming out, top of head sawn off…..much worse though was seeing my father have a knee disarticulation amputation and then going back to work. Who looked after us? No one. “Police officers rely on their informal social networks” yeah, wives and families.

  8. Who.is protecting the protectors? Wives and families, including children, who are expendable. And the protectors deflect their rage onto families more than anyone else by miles. Not so macho then are we. I know that police officers are unkind and take little or no responsibility for their behaviour in the family home. It is obvious that for every suicide, which is a violent act, far more acts of domestic violence are perpetrated, because anyone with a modicum of experience knows that a certain truth. Personally I have been strangled after our officer has come home from work, for absolutely no.identifiable reason, as a teenager. I was absolutely.terrified and did not understand.d what was happening.
    I have an extensive history of self harm, beginning on my 17 th year, problems eating, dissociation, withdrawal, overdosing, and so on, episodes (2) of clinical depression and clinical anxiety, hospitalizations for months at a time in intensive care psychiatric units…….all.of this has been swept under the carpet. Not any more. Quite frankly I don’t care if you are conning the public into thinking your are some kind of white knights, at home you lot are probably using your police status to perpetrate appaling bullying on your families, your dirty, tawdry little secrets aren’t so safe anymore now.

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