Today is #Timetotalk day, in recognition of the difficulties caused by mental ill health, and the need to express how we are feeling if we are to confront it as an individual and within our organisations.
I have heard so many ‘come out’ with their stories of how they were ill through stress and depression recently, with many contributory factors, work and social, but the common denominator is they are police officers.
My surprise at these upstanding people revealing their illnesses is easily and quickly dismissed – it should be no surprise that anyone who has to be the rock on which society relies, who deals with constant conflict, sees people at their worst and most vulnerable, and witnesses the evillest of deeds on such a regular basis, is brought low by such events.
Most can not, or do not want to, relate what they see and feel because doing so burdens and passes their fears and stresses on to those they love.
My experience of how policing can easily have a cumulative effect goes back many years when I was working at one of the busiest inner city police stations in the country, in West Yorkshire, during the miners’ strike in 1984.
Those working the streets were few and far between and had to work long hours while colleagues manned picket lines at collieries not far away. I was rostered to work seven 12-hour shifts in a row, Monday evening at 6pm to the following Monday at 6am.
With half the shift missing, it was usually 8am that I placed my hat, baton and cuffs in my locker and went home.
That was not the difficulty, I was young, fit and enjoyed being busy. The devastation to my health came in a constant flow of events that involved death over one week. Seven days in a row I was asked to deal with either a suicide, sudden death or fatal traffic collision.
From breaking a door down to find an old lady in bed, plastic bag over her head and suicide note on the table, declaring she could not take the pain any longer, to attempting to pull a truck driver from his mangled cab and then escorting his corpse to the hospital, removing his clothing and wedding ring, then arranging for his wife and children to be told of his demise.
I had coped with six of these on six consecutive days, on top of the usual domestic violence, pub fights, car thefts and other usual incident. Just.
However, as I arrived, pretty frazzled, at 5.30pm on Sunday evening after a few hours’ sleep having only left work at 9am that morning, the inevitable call came through to the parade room before I even had chance to complete a briefing.
“Can you turn out please Paul, we don’t have anyone to deal with an urgent call that needs to be made, pop into the control room and we’ll give you details.”
Tie in hand, helmet under the arm and brain not really in gear, I presented myself to the station control room staff who read out the details of the incident I was to deal with.
“Can you go to XXXXXXXXXXXX, Leeds 15, and tell the parents of XXXXX that he has wrapped his car around a tree and is unlikely to make it,” they said.
My chin must have hit the floor or I had turned from white to blue because they realised I had reacted strangely.
“Just take her to St James’ and the hospital staff will handle everything,” they suggested.
I grabbed some car keys and made my way to the address I had been given, trying to compose myself as best I could. I was very aware that I was barely able in this regard and wondered if I really should be knocking on someone’s door with such bad news when I could hardly get a grip on myself.
I was still putting on my tie as I approached the door and did not have time to think before my instincts kicked in. As soon as the mother saw me standing in front of her she knew. She went down like a sack of potatoes. I grabbed her arm as she hit the floor. I helped her to the sofa, her husband was more composed and I did not have to explain much, they had seen their 17-year boy go out just a few hours earlier and my explanation as to what had happened was no shock – a parent’s worse fear as a child takes to the road on their own at such an impressionable and tender age was realised.
I did exactly what the control room suggested and drove the mother to St James’. As I led her into casualty, the nurses saw me coming and indelicately announced PC Death’s arrival. The mother looked ashen and fortunately I was able to pass her on to them to explain.
For the first and only time in my police service, I asked if there was somewhere I could go out of the public eye and turned my radio off. I am not proud of that as I would not have been able to respond if any of my colleagues needed assistance, especially as there were so few of us.
After a much needed mug of tea and much understanding offered in the nurses’ rest room, I switched the radio back on and walked back to the remaining at least ten and a half hours left of my shift.
There was no time for talk back then. A little banter maybe, being teased during the early hours of the morning yes. Definitely no real talk.
All those events were locked inside as the next thousand high pressure incidents rolled by. Fortunately, I left before these events had chance to cause too much harm. I don’t think I could have dealt with another 25 or so years of this.
What I have learnt since is these incidents are not the ones to send you into depression. It is more likely a negative decision at promotion board, refusal of transfer or lack of understanding from a partner as to why you are staring at a TV and can’t say explain a single thing that happened in the show.
Let us not be surprised when colleagues don’t perform as best they can, please help them empty all those emotions, fears and stresses that result from their daily work before they have too great an impact.
It is time to talk.