Then and Now – change in attitude towards mental welfare within the police.
Having served 30 years within the police retiring in the mid 1990’s I was part of the ‘Life on Mars ‘era. Of course, the television series would have us believe the job was riddled with drunken Detectives who just did their own thing. There was however great comradery and yes, a few beers spilt but the job got done and the public were not so demanding then with Officers allowed to get on with their work. Even so I can readily recall the stresses and strains placed on officers and staff some of whom made no mention of their difficulties when coping with psychological problems. Police humour and a pint in the local pub were the ‘aspirin’ of the day.
Such conduct combined with the macho attitude to get ‘Get back on the Horse’ prevailed and was strengthened by an underlying fear to those psychologically affected, that to inform the Welfare and HR Departments would indicate a weakness and possibly affect promotion or their continuance within the job. To be honest the welfare treatment offered in those days compared with now was minimal and such conditions as PTSD and C-PTSD not really understood.
Most of my service was spent within the CID and like many I was used to witnessing ‘full on’ scenes involving serious injury including death and the impact it had on both witnesses and relatives alike. But what about me and my colleagues and for that matter other emergency services do they not get affected? Well of course they do, and I was no exception. There I was in my early 40’s your typical ‘adrenaline junkie’ with no real understanding of ‘burnout’ being sucked into doing excessive hours without thought to what existed outside police work. This was OK until I got involved in a couple of back to back murder enquiries. I must say at the time apart from little sleep my work diet was ‘crap’ my drinking somewhat excessive with little or no real exercise.
One of these murders happened to be particularly sad because it involved a middle-aged woman who lived half a mile from my home address whose body was found by her three children all aged under 10, in some bushes near to their address. This discovery by the children had a massive psychological impact on the family – two of the children subsequently diagnosed with PTSD. I have a wife who was of similar age to the victim at the time and two children so it was worrying for me that this could easily have happened to my family. Because of this I allowed myself to absorb the family’s grief by getting too involved which is not to be recommended.
A week into the enquiry from seemingly nowhere I was disturbed from my sleep, breathless with pains in my chest suffering the symptoms of a heart attack that I later self-diagnosed as a panic attack. I did not seek any form of medical assistance nor tell my colleagues or superiors. Not very clever eh? I must say I had never had a panic attack before that night and felt jittery and totally drained of energy for the next few weeks. How dare this happen to me!
I quickly learnt that when emotions are running high and adrenaline is pumping continuously you must step back and learn to relax on the basis that you ‘cannot be relaxed and tense at the same time’.
From this one example of an incident that affected me albeit not seriously it is a stark reminder that many officers must have carried baggage to their grave back then, but we must not allow this in modern policing. When I look back from the 60’s to the 90’s from what I witnessed and compare the difference in both attitude and support nowadays towards mental health it is a whole different ball game.
I am a practicing therapist and an Ambassador / Volunteer with Police Care and on my travels I am witnessing officers/staff talking more about their feelings, supervisors showing more understanding, Police Forces signed up to ‘Wellbeing’, techniques being taught to treat PTSD and other psychological conditions. All this and at last we can actually ‘ride the horse’ without fear of falling off’ with the stigma on mental health becoming more and more distant.
None of this is perfect but I am sure we are aiming in the right direction.