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12 May 2021
This Mental Health Awareness Week, former Met Commander John Sutherland shares his personal experience of battling a mental health crisis leading to ill-health retirement and what he has learnt during his recovery.
I retired from policing three years ago but, while you can take the man out of policing, it’s a whole lot harder to take policing out of the man. The simple truth is that I still love the Job - and I still love the incredible women and men who do the Job. It’s just that I’m not able to do it myself any more. For me, policing remains the single finest thing any of us could ever choose to do with our working lives.
But one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the last few years is that it would be impossible to do the job of a police officer for any length of time and to remain untouched - unaffected - by the things you see and do. Policing happens in the hurting places - at the scenes of crimes and car crashes and cot deaths and every other kind of catastrophe - and every police officer has their stories to tell. Every police officer has their scars.
It is estimated that most ordinary people, during the course of their lifetimes, will encounter serious trauma on no more than three or four occasions. In contrast, during the course of their working lives, police officers are likely to encounter serious trauma on 400-600 occasions.
Three-four times in an ordinary life. 400-600 times in a policing life.
How could that possibly be without consequence?
When I joined policing in the early 1990s, we didn’t talk about trauma. It was just the Job. We didn’t talk about the inevitable pressures and strains associated with a life in blue. It was just the Job. We didn’t talk about the impact of our duties on our own mental health. It was just the Job. We might have blown off steam over a few drinks at the end of the shift. We might have resorted to dark humour. But, mostly, we just shrugged our shoulders and carried on.
I carried on for more than twenty years. And then I broke. I had a massive nervous breakdown and ended up being off work for more than seven months. I made it back eventually, but never to full operational duties. I was medically retired from the Met in 2018.
The causes of my breakdown were many and varied, but the wear and tear of a policing life - the accumulated physical, emotional and psychological burdens of the Job - were a significant part of what happened to me. Eight years on, I’m a whole lot better than I once was (in some ways, I’m better than I’ve ever been), but I still need to live my life very carefully. These days, I have the privilege of speaking to groups of officers and staff up and down the country about what happened to me. And I always finish with three lessons I’ve learned - three things that helped me get better and stay well:
Learning how to rest
We live in a world that - lockdown notwithstanding - is moving far too fast. We want our food faster, our broadband faster, our transport connections faster. Faster and faster and faster we go and I, for one, am no longer able to keep up. In fact, I’ve stopped trying. I have had to rediscover the lost art of rest - the ability to slow down, switch off, unplug and let the world pass me by for a while.
Learning how to talk
When I first got sick, I was referred for emergency counselling. I continued to see my therapist for more than five years - and I’d go back and see her in a heartbeat if I needed to. Not all of us need that level of professional help over that length of time, but it remains one of the oldest truths of them all: it’s good to talk.
Learning how to follow sound medical advice
The first thing I did when I woke up this morning was to take my anti-depressant medication. I’ve done the same every morning for the last eight years - and I’ll do the same for the rest of my life if I need to. And I’m not remotely ashamed of the fact. Anti-depressant meds don’t work for everyone, but they do work for a lot of people - and I’m not going to hesitate to take them for as long as they help. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It’s actually a sign of remarkable strength.
After all, we all need a helping hand from time to time. Because it would be impossible to do the job of a police officer for any length of time and to remain untouched - unaffected - by the things you see and do.
If you want to talk to someone right away about your mental health, here is a list of organisations you can call for immediate help.
Our Welfare Support Programme is also here to assist you and provides independent and confidential support to members with access to fully trained and accredited professionals.
You can also read more of John's blogs here.