13 May 2021
A former officer who dedicates his life to supporting members of the police family who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is urging Federation members to speak out about their mental health.
Gary Hayes founded the non-for-profit organisation PTSD999 after past experiences he had witnessed while in the police service left him with agonising PTSD.
In anticipation that the global pandemic will have a lasting effect on officers, especially those on the frontline, Gary has shared his story to raise awareness of the organisation while encouraging others to reach out if they are suffering.
He gave a presentation to officers in the Force Operations Division in March and then last week gave a well received presentation, via Teams, to the Derbyshire Police Federation Branch Council meeting.
“No one day was the same working in the police,” said Gary, who became an officer in 2003 and was a British Transport Police officer in London.
“I worked at specialised events, like Notting Hill Carnival or organised protests, and have experience as a specialist search officer, more specifically missing persons, terrorism, forensic body recovery, to name but a few.
“I dealt with a lot of suicides – probably 200. I’ve lost count of the amount of people I’ve attempted CPR on and the number of bodies I’ve recovered.”
Gary, who no longer works in policing, explains he’s also experienced acts of violence, including knife and acid attacks, along with road traffic collisions.
“I feel like there’s an expectation of police officers. We go into this role and we’re expected to just deal with what we see,” he says.
One specific job Gary recalls is when he was working on the disappearance of April Jones, a young girl who was murdered in Wales.
“I’ve never seen a team so broken,” father-of-three Gary continues, adding: “Around eight of us working on that case were parents and it impacted us all. We had a six-hour drive back home and no one spoke in the van for the entire time, it was bizarre.
“The job can be emotional and draining. You go from job to job with very little down time, trying to normalise the things you see.”
Another traumatic job that stands out for Gary is the 7/7 London Bombings in 2005. Gary’s wife, who was also in the Metropolitan Police, had just had a baby and he was on paternity leave.
Following the attack, Gary was called back into work to lead a team which helped identify the deceased from the four bomb scenes.
“One day a man came in to say goodbye to his deceased son, one of the youngest victims of the attack. The man had lost his whole family,” explains Gary.
“I saw a note that the father had written and left for his son and it broke me. I can’t begin to tell you what happened to me. I was a new dad, with a new baby and I just felt so desperately sorry for the bloke.
“I broke all the rules, left the body and just had to get outside for some air.”
From that moment, signs of PTSD soon started to appear, and Gary’s mental health began to get worse.
“I started drinking a lot and took my frustrations home with me. I actually felt so useless and worthless I wanted to take my own life,” Gary says, “I went to a well-known suicide spot and stood on a train line. I waited for the train to come and when it did, I stood up. For that moment, I felt so calm, like all the pressures I had felt before had lifted.
“Anyway, for some reason – a reason I will never know – I ended up falling backwards instead of forwards. I broke down again and just thought about my wife and kids.”
Gary admits he wishes he had talked to someone sooner about his wellbeing but felt the last thing he wanted to do was show he was weak.
“People look up to you when you’re in that role,” he adds, “I just couldn’t acknowledge the fact that I was struggling.”
Gary created PTSD999 six years ago now and has since worked tirelessly to support the police and other emergency workers who are suffering with PTSD and their mental health.
They help fund trauma response treatment, while helping to train people to professionally support others.
“The thing that keeps me going is knowing what I put my wife and kids through. It sounds like a cliché but if I can help just one family, that will do,” says Gary, who spends his evenings, seven days a week, responding to phone calls and emails from those in need of support.
“I’ve never been shy of a challenge and I will never let this go.
“The sad truth is, without our PTSD999, I think people would just be left to take their own lives, it’s that simple.”
As the world emerges out the other end, following the Covid-19 crisis, Gary thinks a lot of officers will be reaching out for support, adding: “It’s been a traumatic time, this past 12 months and not just for those on the frontline but also for those working in the background, like the call handling team who receive frightening calls every day.
“What about those officers who have dealt with Covid-19 deaths and had to tell families that their loved ones have died? Of course, we’re once again seeing a rise in assaults on police officers too.
“All of this will have an impact and I think we’ll be overwhelmed as lockdown restrictions continue to ease.
“I’m just asking people to tell someone if they feel they can’t cope. Not just men, but women too, you have to speak out.”
After Gary’s presentation to the Branch Council, Federation secretary Kirsty Bunn said: “This input was very impactive, thought-provoking and informative. It gave good background of the causes and triggers of post-traumatic stress and emphasised the importance of checking in on your colleagues and making sure they are OK.”
Find out more at ptsd999.org.uk