After suffering an injury on duty, Matt’s* physical and mental health declined to such an extent he couldn’t see the point in carrying on. For years, the recently retired police officer kept his worries to himself, managed his pain as best he could and avoided conversations with concerned family and friends.
When he experienced a breakdown in 2018, Matt finally opened and sought help. Now he is encouraging others to do the same.
Matt joined the police after a career in the armed forces. He spent years in frontline roles from response to football spotting, neighbourhood and proactive policing. Not long after joining the job, Matt suffered a back injury when a prisoner fell on him in custody. At the time, his general health and fitness appeared to be on his side, and he recovered well.
A couple of years later, Matt’s back flared up again, then again, a few years after that. Changing roles gave him some relief from factors that seemed to trigger his back condition, such as wearing certain kit. However, his health continued to decline and short spells off work became longer periods of sick leave.
He explained: “I was having to take medication to go into work. And then medication throughout the day trying to limit the pain. My back would lock and, in the mornings, just trying to get dressed, I would be crawling around on my hands and knees in agony.
“It was always hard to go back once I’d been off for a period of time and these got longer because it obviously took longer to recover. Towards the last few episodes, and then certainly when I went off in 2018, it wasn’t just the back. It was affecting my mental health as well. And that’s when I had a complete breakdown.”
Matt was on holiday with his family when he reached rock bottom.
He said: “My mental health totally deteriorated. I’ve got no family issues; my wife’s been supportive all the way through and my two daughters. I had no money worries. Everything was okay really; it was all from my back and I don’t know… I just felt I couldn’t go on.”
Matt realised he needed help and spoke to his family, his GP and his supervisors. Doctors administered nerve blockers for his back pain but over time, specialists determined he had sustained significant damage to his facet joints.
Matt paid privately for an operation which improved his mobility and relieved some of his pain but ultimately his injury was to be career-ending. Work provided counselling and a psychologist introduced him to Police Care UK.
The charity supported Matt and his family through some challenging times, particularly when he went onto half pay then no pay. Police Care UK assisted Matt’s eldest daughter, who was starting a law degree, with a laptop and financial assistance, while helping with the cost of essential activities for his younger child, who has her own severe health conditions.
Matt also had contact with one of Police Care UK’s Peer Support Volunteers. Peer supporters have a range of policing experiences and are all retired, typically having left due to ill health and/or injury. Speaking to someone who could truly empathise was a turning point for Matt.
“When you’ve got someone that’s been through it, it makes a huge difference,” Matt said. “I always put on a front at work and home. At home I’d be asked how my day was by my wife, and it would always be ‘yeah it was fine’, even if it was terrible.
“At work, I was a bit of a joker always laughing and not letting things get to me. I wouldn’t tell anyone if I had any worries or if I was panicking. I’ve never stressed about anything and I think that’s what came as a shock to me when I finally did break down. The best way I can describe it is that it felt like my brain was a big box and it just had no more room.”
Matt hopes former colleagues who recognise themselves in his story will seek the help they need.
“People would see me when I was at work, six foot four, quite big and strong and never afraid, and would say ‘you don’t look like you’ve got mental health issues’ or wouldn’t believe me. It is a big stereotype, but it can affect anyone. I feel guilty that I’ve left and there’s still people going through all this.
“Police Care has totally changed me. I kept so much to myself and didn’t communicate, didn’t talk. And the thing that probably saved me was talking.”
If Matt’s experiences strike a chord with you, please don’t keep your feelings to yourself. Visit our website to find out how we can help you, for free and in confidence.