Every Contact Leaves A Trace
Earlier this week the Daily Mail ran an article which claimed that more than 100 police officers take a whole year off work due to mental health issues. It stated that 1500 officers were absent every day for the same reasons.
I refuse to provide a link because I despise the paper and everything it writes but, in fairness, apart from some unnecessary CAPITALISATION, the article itself did not pass judgement. It allowed commentary from the Federation but resisted the temptation to use evocative language like “excuses” and “sickies” as it has done in the past.
Sadly, the comments section was less generous. I’ve been told many times never to stray below the line but I did so on this occasion to see what people thought. Much is being said about the increase in stress and anxiety in policing (and other services) and we are trying to promote an open environment where those suffering are happy to reveal how they feel and seek help.
Well – I wanted to see whether the public felt sympathy. It probably won’t surprise you to know that Daily Mail readers do not seem to. Choice quotes would include “stop the sick pay and they will soon go back” “they must be made to leave instead of being paid by tax payers”
My personal favourite “I don’t think they are rigorous with their selection as they used to be, so those with mental health issues can get in.” This author would exclude a quarter of the population with their recruitment processes.
This and other sadly predictable “if they can’t take it then leave” comments showed exactly why stigma remains on the subject of mental health.
To those who chose to comment it would seem that policing is an easy job full of malingering wasters who are milking the tax payer for an easy life.
Back in the real world – some important and authoritative research was published just a day or two later.
To mark their 50th anniversary, The Police Dependants’ Trust published their research on police injuries on duty.
What is revealing is that the prevalence of mental health issues is rising.
Once upon a time “muscular-skeletal injury” was the most common injury appearing on police sick notes. Now it is stress / mental health.
Whether people are now more willing to reveal the true nature of their illness or whether there has been an actual increase is not clear but the figures are truly staggering:
10,000 serving and former officers and staff took part in the survey.
Of those who took a week off work – 42% said it was because of depression, anxiety, stress or PTSD compared to 21% for physical injury. Double.
In their write up – the charity talks of the scale of “invisible injuries” in the UK police service.
The job itself is hurting its own staff.
What is also clear from the research is that officers still do not feel that they are being supported by their forces.
Gill Scott-Moore, CEO of the Police Dependants’ Trust is quoted as saying
“officers are being let down – perhaps unintentionally – but they are being let down.”
The report makes several recommendations one of which is that police forces should recognise and encourage the disclosure of psychological injury and provide officers and staff with information on how to recognise the symptoms in themselves and colleagues, working actively to mitigate the stigma attached to psychological injury.
Yes! Yes! Yes!
I’ve blogged about it before and I have spoken on the effect that policing can have on an individual. It is this which the Mail commentators singularly fail or to choose not to understand.
It isn’t just the one truly awful serious incident which leads to mental health issues. The service is getting better at catching people after such events and offering help and support.
Where it isn’t so good is at scanning for and dealing with the “drip feed” effect of policing generally.
Let’s face it – policing is almost relentlessly negative. Nobody calls the police to tell them they are having a good day. Officers and staff deal with people in varying stages of crisis several times a day. Victims of crime, injured people, lost and bewildered people, angry people, violent people, traumatised people.
You see many sights in policing that nobody should see once never mind every week or every day.
One of the commentators in the Daily Mail made a big deal about policing not being dangerous – so what’s the problem? Statistically, policing is not dangerous but this isn’t about danger.
It is about the effect on someone’s wellbeing when they are constantly bombarded with bad things.
It would be the same for anyone – if you are surrounded by goodness and happiness then it is highly likely that you will be a happy person unaffected by the trials of life.
If you are surrounded by trauma and bad news then this is bound to have an effect on you. It builds up over years and – unless there is a safety valve – it can bubble over.
Every contact leaves a trace. Every incident leaves a mark. The bad ones leave a scar. The worst ones leave a wound which won’t heal. But they all add up and I am personally convinced that it is this, rather than one really bad incident, which is the cause of much of the anxiety and depression in police officers.
Once upon a time soldiers were shot for desertion from the front line. Some showed signs of “shell shock”. It wasn’t until years later that our understanding of what was going on became sufficient enough for us to realise that what these soldiers were suffering from was most likely a form of PTSD.
The actor, Sir Patrick Stewart, talks about how his father returned from war a different and violent man. There is a documentary about his experience where he starts viewing it from the point of domestic abuse (which it was) but gradually, after speaking with experts, he comes to realise that this behaviour change was most likely a result of undiagnosed PTSD. It is an incredible journey of discovery.
I am not for a moment comparing policing to the horrors of the battlefield but the point is that PTSD can have dramatic and life changing effects.
Police officers and staff deal with enough grief and trauma during the service and are exposed to such constant negativity that it must do – and does – affect their mental health.
I know – because it happened to me and I’ve seen it happen to many others.
It doesn’t make me weak. It makes me human.
Did I know the job would do this to me? Probably not to the extent it did but it doesn’t mean I should leave.
Accepting that I haven’t really taken much time off because of it – but recognising that it has at times made me very unwell indeed – should I do as the Daily Mail commentators suggest and pack it all in so someone stronger and with more fortitude can take my place?
The answer is no.
We are all human. We all have limits. Some have higher limits than others but a job to which you can give so much and which can demand so much of you is highly likely to affect you.
This isn’t an ordinary job. It’s an extraordinary job done by ordinary people. Those people can also become extraordinary but they are not bullet proof, they are not superhuman and they are not invulnerable to the effect of sadness, bad news, negativity and trauma.
What the Daily Mail commentators are demanding is soulless drones. The Daily Mail commentators are wrong.
The role of policing will not change. The nature of policing will not change. The fact that policing is done by human beings with all their faults and sensitivities will not change.
We can therefore expect that the fact that this causes a lot of people mental injury will not change.
We cannot prevent officers and staff from being exposed to terrible things and we must expect them to get on with and deal with whatever is in front of them.
However, what we can do is ignore the likes of the comments section of the Daily Mail and insist on looking out for and looking after each other. That is how we “mitigate stigma”.
Stress, depression, anxiety are common in all walks of life. You don’t surrender the right to suffer these when you join the police. It is one of those jobs which actually make it more likely. That is the truth of it – not that police officers are weak.
The Police Dependants’ Trust research is revealing and hugely important. It should be a watershed moment in police welfare. Senior officers need to hear what it is telling them and we all need to be far more vigilant and aware of the signs and symptoms.
The police protect people – the police now need to get a lot better at protecting their officers and staff.
You can learn more about how The Police Dependants’ Trust help officers and staff in this short video which was launched at their 50th anniversary reception on 22nd November 2016.