TRIGGER WARNING: this post discusses suicide and mental ill-health very specifically amongst police officers – those affected by these issues should carefully consider whether or not to read on. There is support available via the links and phone numbers at the bottom of this page, if needed.
Two separate news articles from opposite sides of our planet caught my attention this week: each of them referring to suicide and mental distress amongst police officers. In the state of Victoria in Australia, the Chief Commissioner has set up two separate, but clearly related, external inquiries into police deaths and depression. These reviews emerged after seven police officers in the last two and a half years took their own lives. Set against a workforce of over twelve and a half thousand, that number may not seem large but that department estimate that as many as thirty officers are currently at risk of suicide.
Meanwhile, a police sergeant in Toronto took his own life after leaving a suicide note specifically attributing his decision to work-related issues and his battle with PTSD. His family is calling for the inquest to examine the officer’s claims against a background that includes other police suicides and a former police sergeant’s criticism of the support he received for PTSD. And let’s face it: these two countries are not alone and this issue does not just affect police officers. There are more deaths of US police officers after suicide than after homicide each year. Queries a year or two ago to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary revealed that police forces here do not collate data on suicides, but we know there have recently been several and that policing in the UK is considered one of the higher-risk professions.
So, are we failing police officers? … or emergency first responders?
POLICING AND MENTAL ILL-HEALTH
Mental ill-health in policing generally is a subject we don’t discuss very much: having asked these men and woman to go and do a pile of stuff the rest of us wouldn’t do, it should come as no surprise that the police, like paramedics, are four times as likely to suffer from stress, depression and anxiety when compared to the population as a whole. When I do talks that touch on the broad subject of mental health and policing, you often find questions asked about mental health in policing. You don’t have to look hard to find something to say, either – individual anecdotes of suicides by serving officers, perceptions of in-house support and more general comments about the extent to which we don’t seem to have fully understood this. We know from research that acute levels of stress in policing are probably connected to non-negligible levels of mental illness.
If you spend even a short amount of time on social media, you will bump into numerous examples of current and former officers living with mental health issues and plenty of those will say that they felt unsupported at key times. It must be said, that prevalence of distress and suicide risk has been linked in some instances with criminal or disciplinary procedures against officers so it is always going to be difficult in some cases to be both impartial prosecutor and supportive employer. I’m aware of several legal actions ongoing by former officers under employment law for alleged failures in a duty of care or because they have alleged failures to support employees suffering from mental distress or give proper regard to mental ill-health when it comes to personnel processes. Of course, mental health problems are classified for the purposes of the Equality Act as protected characteristics. Officers who experience mental health problems at work are – in theory, at least – no different to officers who become physically disabled after an assault or accident. And as with physical health problems, disability can arise for all manner of reasons, including work related reasons.
So where is the narrative that talks about police work as a line of work that can carry a cost in terms of mental health?
Asking this question is not to ignore that other professions – including other emergency first-responders – are also at raised risk of inflicting psychological distress upon their staff. In particular, rates of PTSD in police officers (and in other first-responders) are concerning. More concerning still, are the support mechanisms available in many cases. We know that amidst public sector cuts, some police forces are having to reduce the counselling and other support that is able to be offered to staff and that NHS support for counselling and CBT can involve as much as an eighteen month wait.
The demographics of recruitment and retention don’t help trends in police suicide and mental ill-health. Reporting on suicide in the population as a whole puts young and early middle-aged men right in the danger zone, when it comes to predicting overall probabilities. The Samaritans produced a very comprehensive report on suicide in the UK and Ireland this year and it provides detail on age and other demographic factors.
So in a profession that is still comprised mainly of men, the profession-level risks become amplified and obvious. Every time I read initiatives about male mental health, I must admit I think about my predominantly male colleagues up against a culture that suggests you should be able to cope and a structure that may struggle to support you anyway.
You can see clues about police culture all around and much academic time has been given over to studying it. Suffice to say here: none of the seven police officers in Victoria who took their own lives sought help from their employer. So where suicide is the leading cause of death generally in men from certain age groups, we should be concerned about the risk of suicide in a profession that has higher than average rates of psychological distress and mental disorder and which is predominatly male. Of course, female officers are affected too and whilst female suicide rates are much lower than those for men, female rates of self-harm are much higher. It means we need think about how staff may be differently affected and think way beyond suicide.
The above report from the police in Victoria is not the first to make the claim that more days are lost to sickness in the police to mental health and other psychological problems than to physical health problems. And sickness days lost to stress, depression and anxiety is on the rise. Reports suggest that since 2010, sickness arising from mental health and psychological problems is up significantly. In the North East of England, three police forces reported percentage rises of 260%, 122% and 37% compared to three years previously. Even a 37% rise is significant and despite my efforts, I couldn’t find a news article suggesting that any UK police force had seen a decrease. Let me know if you find one.
It’s worth noting the emphasis placed by forces upon the potential for personal circumstances to give rise to this trend. In response to the story of north-east forces as well as elsewhere, senior officers have been keen to stress this and of course, that will be part of it. But it must be said, there seems to be a lack of acknowledgement of the role that police work pays in causing distress and illness amongst officers. In 2007, psychological problems were listed at the top of those reasons that cause long-term absence in a report by the Health and Safety Executive. It would be really interesting to read an up to date version of this report.
IT’S TIME TO CHANGE
For some while now, I’ve felt that we need to see the development of a charitable organisation specifically aimed at supporting police officers (or 999 personnel as a whole) suffering from psychological distress and mental health problems. I keep seeing the effort, the work and the impact of Combat Stress in drawing attention to and supporting our Armed Forces Veterans. The issues in policing and emergency services work being different, with obvious overlaps, it strikes me that there is a gap that needs filling. So it seems we could be doing a whole lot more and talking about this would be a good start – the Time To Change initiative has long since focussed its message on the importance of an open dialogue about mental health problems, but they also highlighted that policing is in the top two professional groups to be comparatively unaffected by its campaigns. Yet how many times have we heard police officers who have found themselves living in distress say something similar to, “I would have thought I was the sort of person to affected by mental health problems.”
There is the knuckle of the problem – there is no type of person. It’s about the broader human condition and the way we live our lives. In my humble opinion.
Are we failing police officers? – let’s just say we have a long way to go. Who’s protecting the protectors?
NB: if you have been affected by the issues in this post, you can talk to the Samaritans for the price of a local phone call on 08457 909090.
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